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Piggy bank

Q From Jed Hartman: Many web pages claim that piggy bank derives from pygg, said to be a kind of clay. They say that in the 18th century pygg bank became pig bank and later piggy bank. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, suggest that piggy bank comes from piggy, and the earliest cites are 20th century. None of them give a really clear and definitive answer. So I figured I’d ask you. Any thoughts?

A There’s a great deal of nonsense written about the origin of piggy bank. As a typical example, this is from a book that came out just as I was looking into the matter:

The name originated from the word “pygg”, which referred to an orange clay used to form all sorts of pottery items, including jars to hold loose change, which were named after the material itself. In the eighteenth century a clever potter decided to make a pig-shaped “pygg bank” as a novelty item and that soon became the piggy bank of today.

No 1 Mum, by Alison Maloney, 2013.

As you say, other websites and publications have stories very like this. Particularly marked are the repeated references to that orange clay. They all appear traceable back to one of those Life in 1500 spoof e-mails that circulated so widely in the 1990s and which new online generations periodically rediscover. These seem in turn to have been based on Charles Panati’s book of 1989, The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, which has no reference for the story. In turn he may have got it from How Did It Begin? by Dr Rudolph Brasch, published in 1965, who likewise gives no source. Too many people who have encountered the story have taken it at face value.

The story is false in every particular. There is no record of a clay called pygg, whether orange or any other colour. The term pygg bank is not on record and piggy bank is only a century old.

Devices similar in function to modern piggy banks are ancient — the Greeks and Romans had them. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has examples dating from the sixteenth century. Historically, they were called money boxes, though modern collectors and curators often prefer to identify them as the more generic coin banks. Most were quickly thrown on a potter’s wheel, sealed at the top and with a slot cut in the side to insert coins. As an encouragement to save, the only way to get the money out was to break them, a good reason not to make them of expensive materials. That’s also why so few have survived. Many of the V&A’s examples are beautifully made and look too good to smash; these were presumably intended as decorative presents rather than practical savings boxes (modern ones get around the problem by providing a stopper or plug that avoids having to smash the container). However, there seems to be no significant British tradition of making them in the shape of pigs.

The story may be based on a misunderstanding. In Scotland and northern England, pig — occasionally pygg, though that’s just a variant or dialectal spelling of pig — was used from about 1450 as a general term for earthenware products, including pots, pitchers, jars and crockery. The references to the colour orange in the story presumably derive from a common colour of unglazed earthenware.

The experts are unsure where this sense of pig came from. It might have been from piggin, a wooden pail (though that could sometimes mean an earthenware pitcher), or be related to prig, a dialect term for a small pitcher; it might conceivably at some point in its history have been influenced by the animal sense of pig, because a few items, such as ceramic hot-water bottles, are smoothly rounded like a pig’s body and have indeed been called pigs.

Scots named their coin banks pirly pigs, probably from the older Scots pyrl, to thrust or poke, suggesting the action of inserting a coin. The pig refers not to their shape but to the class of earthenware items to which they belonged.

We see the modern name evolving in American publications at the very end of the nineteenth century. The first form was pig bank:

The latest novelty — The Pig Bank. You have to kill the pig to get the money — 25c each.

The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 10 Nov. 1900. Thanks to Barry Popik for finding this.

May we presume from this that there was little or no earlier history of pig-shaped money boxes in the US? It seems so, from what little information on nineteenth-century ceramics I’ve been able to gather. Might the name have been suggested by the old Scots term? Probably not. More likely it came about through German immigrant influence, since money boxes in the shape of pigs are known much earlier from that country and from elsewhere in continental Europe. It’s claimed that the shape was suggested through an old idea that the pig was a symbol of fertility and frugality. (Ancient Javanese ones exist, too, but knowledge of these is less likely to have travelled to the US.)

Within a decade or so, the term had matured into the modern form:

She could see everything quite plainly now; her little room with the pink roses climbing up the wall, her box of toys, — “Teddy was up-side-down, poor Teddy,” — her desk with the piggy bank on top of it.

Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, Feb. 1913.

These days piggy banks come in a bewildering range of shapes and styles and a direct connection with pigs is much less clear.

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Last modified: 11 May 2013.