Categorized | History/Culture

The Origins of the Piggy Bank

By: Bruce W Carpenter

Majapahit Piggy Bank

Majapahit Piggy Bank

In the west the Piggy Bank has long been a time-honoured rite of passage, a whimsical but didactic tool for inculcating children with the benefits of saving. While today many may consider the humble piggy bank a quaint but dated holdover from the Victorian Age, few are aware of its ancient origins and profound symbology.

While there are several alternative theories of origin, there is no doubt that the first true piggy banks – terracotta banks in the shape of a pig with a slot in the top for depositing coins – were made in Java in the 14th century! So many of these charming banks have been found in so many sizes that it is clear they were immensely popular at the time. If you want proof, visit the National Museum on Jalan Merdeka where several are on display.

In truth the animal depicted is technically not a pig, but the Javanese boar or celeng, a small swayed back black skinned cousin of the European wild boar hunted by Asterix and Obelix.  Wild boar are still found in dwindling jungles throughout Indonesia, sadly however, encroachment on their natural habitat has led to a conflict between farmers who view them as pests because of their habit of rooting up planted crops.

This and a growing dislike of all things haram has resulted in recent years to a new sport in West Sumatra – huge organised hunts in the highlands catering to successful Jakartan Minangkabau tradesmen visiting their home villages.  In search of a day out of gladiatorial-like entertainment, they use enormous packs of dogs to replicate the local equivalent of the politically incorrect English foxhunt. Sadly the end is predictable and cruel – a vicious and bloody battle as scores of dogs shred the boar alive. While the boar always dies, these ferocious when cornered courageous creatures also have their revenge – a high number of canine casualties as well. Considering that many of these specially trained animals cost as much as 30 million a piece, their owners often pay mightily for their vicarious pleasure.  Needless to say the meat is never used for making wild boar sausages.

A domesticated version of the Indonesian wild boar can still be seen in Bali. Although they are being rapidly replaced by European breeds, the fact they are the critical ingredient in Bali’s signature cuisine, babi guling, probably guarantees their survival. The traditional role of the boar in Bali also brings us back to the original subject, the meaning of the piggy bank.

As every pig breeder knows, swine produce prodigious litters of piglets on a regular basis. So, too, blessed with huge appetites piglets quickly grow to enormous sizes, eating only leftovers and a variety of foodstuffs of no use to humans. Until today many Balinese households raise swine as a quick and easy, albeit odorous, way to make money leading to a direct connection between pigs and prosperity.

What better form to choose for a clay bank to promote small savings into great wealth. Every great fortune starts with the first penny or in the case of the populace of the Majapahit Empire who made the first piggy banks, kepeng, round Chinese brass coins with square holes that the Balinese still use for making offerings.  Like the first piggy banks in Europe, once filled, the only way to open Majapahit celeng banks was to break them open. The huge number of broken examples excavated in the vicinity of Truwulan, the former capital suggest a lot of money was saved and spent perhaps to make down payments on motorcycles.

How the piggy bank migrated to Europe is, of course, another story altogether. We can only guess, but there are several possibilities. One is that Oderico de Pordenone, an Italian Catholic monk who was the first and only westerner to the court of the Majapahit in the 14th century, and a lesser-known contemporary of Marco Polo, brought the idea back with him.  The idea may also have travelled to Europe via China and the Silk Route. As art history often teaches us, visual concepts often migrate far from their point of origin in mysterious ways. The irony, of course, is not only that few know the origins of piggy banks, but also that their place of origin is now the world’s most populated Muslim country.

About Bruce W Carpenter

Author and noted Indonesian art expert. Bruce W. Carpenter has authored and co-authored more than 16 books and scores of articles on the art, culture and history of Indonesia. His most recent was Antique Javanese Furniture and Folk Art.

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