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In praise of piggy banks

In my bedroom sits a large, primitive, ceramic piggy bank painted with a swirl of pink flowers and green vines, now faded.

It is Mexican-made, purchased in the 1960s by my mother at the old Jordan Marsh department store in Miami. It was endowed with a particularly large coin slot, a plus according to my mother, who bought it with hopes that people would insert only large coins to help pay for my college education. Relatives indeed emptied their pockets and filled its rotund belly with money, just as my mother remembered her own family doing with her childhood piggy bank. My great- grandfather, I've been told, used to plunk quarters into her bank on nights he came over to eat dinner and watch The Lone Ranger.

Lately, perhaps because of the worrisome economy, this primitive banking practice got me to thinking about the history of the piggy bank and where its name originated.

At first, I admit, I thought these decorative, money-grubbing pigs had gone out of favor. I don't have children and I haven't seen one perched on someone's dresser in recent memory. But a quick check of the Web revealed that the piggy bank is as popular as ever. The Museum of Modern Art carries a stylish, contemporary version in leather; a company called Piggy Bank of America claims to offer "the widest and best selection of piggy banks in the world."

Rachel, a life-sized bronze-cast piggy bank, is the official mascot of the Pike Place Market in Seattle (visitors feed her money and rub her snout for luck). And the Miami Children's Museum allows visitors to walk through a 6-foot piggy bank, where they can design their own currency and learn how to save it.

Piggy banks are deceiving because they aren't always shaped like pigs — or even animals, for that matter. I've seen them shaped like cars, dollar bills, Super Mario, Buddhas, fire hydrants, bowling pins, footballs, soccer balls and basketballs.

So why the name piggy bank?

The origins of the bank can be traced back to the Middle English word "pygg," a sturdy clay used for making everyday objects. Theories abound about the origins of the piggy bank — that people kept money in their pygg jars, that the word pygg sounded like "pig" and by the 18th century they were eventually shaped like pigs to fit their name.

Though most pigs now come with a plug in the bottom allowing the saver to get to the money in an emergency, some earlier pigs did not. One theory I've heard is that breaking the pig forced its owner to really think about the intended use of the money and whether it merited destroying the pig.

My piggy bank doesn't feature a traditional plug on the bottom. The only way to get to the college education money plunked in by aunts and uncles and grandparents is to crack open the precious old pig — something I never plan to do (I mean, I can barely bite the head off a gingerbread man, much less crack open an entire pig).

I'm wondering if hard times will spur even more interest in the traditional piggy bank, if they'll become wildly popular like Cabbage Patch Dolls or Beanie Babies in more affluent decades.

Right now, I throw spare change into a plastic freezer bag and use it within a month for household necessities. I'm considering investing in another piggy bank, one that's unique and not cute, maybe a flea market find.

Maybe a piggy bank will force me to save more, I tell myself.

It just better have a plug in the bottom. I couldn't bring myself to break the bank for a little mad money.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

In praise of piggy banks 08/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:39pm]
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