Pigs get a bad rap. Americans often equate them with being grubby, gluttonous, and greedy, despite their highly intelligent and social nature. Calling someone a pig is an insult, and people seem to be more fond of bacon than the creatures themselves. Of all the negative qualities we’ve given pigs, being thrifty is not one of them. So why do we teach children to save money by telling them to stash coins in a hollow receptacle called a piggy bank? To understand this seemingly odd connection, you have to take it back a few hundred years.
People have been storing their savings in dedicated money boxes since time immemorial. To discourage theft or premature withdrawals, they were cheaply made and fashioned with a small slot for coins. The only way to get your cash was to literally “break the bank.”
(Side note: that particular idiomatic phrase actually alludes to casino gambling, in the rare event when a gambler wins more money than the house has on hand.)
This smashing of coin boxes naturally makes it hard to find surviving artifacts, but objects dedicated to coin collection have shown up in Greek and Roman excavations nevertheless. Made of clay or wood, these simple containers were usually pots or jars, and sadly, not little ancient piggies. However, there are examples of early boar-shaped money banks from Asia.
Like pigs, boars are fertile and love chowing down on food and relaxing in the cool mud. It’s possible they were a symbol of prosperity in the East due to their connection with the Earth and plump, well-fed bellies. A famous example of boar-shaped piggy banks comes from the island of Java, in Indonesia. These terracotta vessels date to the Majapahit empire, which ruled for around two centuries starting in 1293.
There are also theories that piggy banks were in use in China during the later Qing dynasty, as pigs symbolized wealth and abundance there. The idea is that people made pig-shaped vessels for their coins for good luck. Still, some believe piggy banks hail from Germany, where construction workers unearthed a 13th-century piggy bank in Thuringia. Germans have associated pigs with good luck for centuries, and gift each other marzipan pigs on New Years Day even now.
Thanks to trade routes between China, Europe, and Indonesia, the concept of a piggy bank might have traveled from one to the other — it’s just difficult to nail down the origin point.
So how did piggy banks become so ubiquitous in the English-speaking world? One popular, but unproven, theory comes from Charles Panati’s 1989 book, The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. Panati wrote that piggy banks evolved from a misunderstanding borne from a language quirk.
According to him, medieval Western Europeans favored an orange clay known as “pygg” over metal, which was expensive. The thriftiest people stored money in some of these “pygg jars.” The word would have been pronounced like “pug” initially, but evolved to sound more like “pig.” So eventually, when customers asked potters for a “pygg jar,” they assumed that meant a dish shaped like a pig. Thus, the piggy bank was born.
Many consider this pure folklore, although interestingly enough, the word “pig” may have been used from around 1450 to describe earthenware in general. It’s possible that’s because some pieces, such as ceramic hot water bottles, are smooth and round like a certain porcine creature we all know.
In 15th-century Scotland, people referred to money boxes as “pirlie pigs,” using the word pig to refer to the earthenware they were made from. The Scots word pyrl meant to thrust or poke. Which is something you do with a coin you’re trying to shove into a slotted box.
The threads surrounding the various origin stories are tenuous at best, but one thing is for sure: Pig-loving Germans migrated to the United States in droves in the 19th-century and brought this fondness along with them. By this time, pig-shaped money boxes were popular in continental Europe. It’s probable that like blue jeans and doughnuts, piggy banks are just another charming invention brought to us by immigrants.