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Medieval Mud that Money Just Can’t Forget


One thing the global financial crisis has unleashed is a lot more thinking about what money is. In the old days the answer was basically simple: Cash. Coins and perhaps banknotes were money, and having more of it was better.

REUTERS/Andrew Winning
Consider the piggy bank, which predates the ancestors to today’s giants such as Deutsche Bank or Citigroup.

The piggy bank’s etymological origins come from pygg, a word with Old English origins denoting a type of clay in wide use for household items that could hold salt, dry herbs and, eventually coins and the like. Swine probably acquired the name pig from the mud they rolled in.

Storing coins in a pygg jar wouldn’t provide much security against thieves. But they did protect against the temptation to go out and spend money right away. This beloved “savings” factor led to literally millions of birthday gifts for children everywhere.

Piggy banks, as they came to be known, had a unique characteristic, one that seems exceedingly peculiar today: One had to break the jar in order eventually to use the money.

Today “breaking the bank” – which would happen if all depositors asked for their money back at the same time – gives shivers to supervisors who promulgate regulations in hopes that never happens. The existence of modern mass banking is based on the confidence that the bank’s vault can cover all liabilities, even though at any instant of it actually cannot.

Curiously, the piggy bank has moved with the times. Most have for decades now been made with removable corks or rubber stoppers so that their contents can be emptied without breaking the clay shape itself.

New Internet payment systems today threaten to challenge the role of commercial banks. One of those systems, an Australian iPhone app allowing users to execute small-bore peer-to-peer payments instantly, is called Pygg.





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