Our story begins on a fine day in April 1913 in the small town of White Cloud, Kansas, when a 10-year-old boy named Wilbur Chapman meets a visitor named William Danner.
Wilbur’s parents were missionaries. Both had found their life’s calling as part of a YMCA-inspired youth religious revival which, according to one historian, “swept like a prairie fire” over Kansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Inspired by their faith, the young couple dedicated their lives to a new organization called the Gospel Missionary Union. By April 1913, Wilbur’s father, Charles, was home on leave, having spent more than a decade selling Bibles and preaching the gospel in Ecuador and Colombia. His mother, Manie, whose health had become too poor to remain overseas, supported their work in many ways from their home in White Cloud.
One thing she did was start prayer groups to seek God’s help in caring for the world’s lepers. When she thought the time was right, she wrote to the head of the American Mission to Lepers, a man from Boston named William Danner. "Come visit us in White Cloud," Mrs. Chapman wrote. "We’ve been praying for the lepers. If you’ll visit our churches," she said, "I believe you can raise $250, enough to care for ten lepers for a year."
A good and dedicated man, Danner went to White Cloud. He stayed in the Chapman home. He befriended young Wilbur. He visited four local churches — in a town of about 750 people — and raised a total of $225 for the mission. A disappointed Mrs. Chapman apologized to him for not meeting their goal of $250.
At the train station before dawn, waiting to head back East, Chapman recalls that he took three silver dollars out of his pocket and “slipped them into Wilbur’s hands as I said good by, asking him not to show these to anyone till morning.”
Several weeks later, Danner got a letter from Wilbur. In the fall, Wilbur wrote, I’ll use the $3 to “buy a pig, and feed him, and see if he will not grow big so I can sell him for enough to support a leper for a year Mother’s tenth leper! Do you see?”
Danner saw. In November he got a second letter. Wilbur had saved the $3 all summer. Now he’d bought the pig. Moreover, the pig was becoming a local celebrity. People had learned about Wilbur’s idea, and many children in town were eager to help Wilbur feed “the leper pig.” The pig was growing. Wilbur had named him Pete.
In the spring of 1914, Wilbur sold the pig and sent $25 to the American Mission to Lepers, finally raising White Cloud’s contribution to $250 and completing the pledge for “Mother’s tenth leper.”
That’s how the story begins. Moved by what Wilbur had done, Danner shared the story with friends at a prayer meeting. One of those friends worked at the Sunday School Times, a national publication serving Sunday School teachers. He asked Danner to write a story for the Times about Wilbur and the pig. Danner agreed.
The story caught on. Sunday School teachers across the country began collection drives in which children would contribute coins to “feed Pete” so as to help the lepers. Soon the American Mission to Lepers was distributing thousands of metal (later, plastic) “Pete the Pig” banks for children to fill with coins. By 1919, 11,000 “Pete the Pig” banks had been distributed to U.S. Sunday Schools. By 1938, the number had reached 100,000, and contributions to the American Mission to Lepers from U.S. Sunday School children had exceeded $1 million.
Today, this story is all but forgotten. But it’s worth remembering.
When you were a child, you probably had a piggy bank. Do you wonder who conceived this idea and what made piggy banks so popular? There’s no single answer. For example, earthenware penny pigs were popular among British children in the late 19th century. But one important answer, at least in the U.S., is the success of the Pete Pig campaign that grew out of Wilbur Chapman’s big idea in 1913.
That big idea can be summed up in one word: thrift. It comes from the word “thrive,” and it’s one of the English language’s oldest and most important words. It’s particularly relevant to problems facing us today. Thrift is an ethic, stemming ultimately from the idea of stewardship. The best definition of thrift is wise use. The opposite of thrift is waste. In practice, thrift usually means working hard and honestly, being frugal and saving all you can and giving back all you can. Like Wilbur did.
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values and the author of "Thrift: A Cyclopedia." Follow him on Twitter: @Blankenhorn3.