First piggy bank

The origins of the modern piggy bank are lost to history, but the oldest extant piggy bank comes from 12th century CE Java.

Piggy bank, 12th century CE Java
Gunkarta, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Piggy banks are one of those ubiquitous items that become weirder the more you actually think abou them. Why is it that money boxes for children most commonly appear in the shape of a circular pig? Who decided that?

Well, it turns out that its actual origins are lost to the mists of history. Modern piggy banks have been popular since the late 19th century, and in Germany before that. There are a few theories, and some possibly spurious histories, but the very first object that can definitely be described as a piggy bank comes from much further afield: the Majapahit Empire.

For more than 200 years – between 1293 and 1527 – the Majapahit Empire controlled significant portions of what is today Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and more. It was a large, wealthy, influential maritime empire. Majapahit terracotta art is particularly esteemed today, and not least because people around the Majapahit capital (modern Trowulan in East Java) keep digging up terracotta artefacts from the empire.

One of those artefacts, pictured above, is a piggy bank. It had a slot for storing Chinese coins, and was found smashed to pieces (presumably, to get at those coins). It’s not the only one; there are several Majapahit piggy banks in museums worldwide. And the association between pigs and fiscal prudence persists in the area today: in modern Javanese, the same word (cèlèngan) means “savings” and “piggy bank.”

Another terracotta piggy bank
Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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