The Pig of Knowledge: The Career of a Concept – Dan Richter

Figure 1. A key chain where the obverse shows an early logo for the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the reverse shows the Pig of Knowledge. Photo by author.
Figure 2. A “pig skin,” or American football representing the McNeil Center as the “Pig Skin of Knowledge.” Photo by author.

The Pig of Knowledge and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS) grew up together. The porcine horizon—as archaeologists might call the Pig’s first appearance in the Center’s material culture—occurred in 1998, the same year in which the former Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies assumed its current name. The porker’s premier was abrupt, and two-fold: The Pig of Knowledge graced both the 1997–1998 fellows’ class memorial tee-shirt and the back cover of the inaugural issue of Explorations in Early American Culture, the predecessor to Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Whether unfolded on cotton or foliated on paper, the Pig provoked profound puzzles. “To be wise, observe, for observation is the source of wisdom,” their motto instructed us. What might that seeming tautology mean in a postmodern age? What were eagle-eyed readers who took the maxim to heart to make of fact that the first issue of Explorations was mysteriously labeled as volume 2? And, speaking of eagles, how did the Pig’s instructions relate to the issue’s front-cover image, which spelled out the new name of the MCEAS using woodcuts from the New England Primer (“The Moon gives light,” “The Cat doth play,” “The Eagle’s flight is out of sight”. . . )? Was it mere coincidence that the Pig indeed would be out of sight for the next two years, leaving no trace in the material record?

Figure 3. Assorted swag provided by the McNeil Center to the fellows’ class at the Philadelphia Center. Photo by author.

The Pig returned for good (or ill) in the year 2001. That year’s fellows’ class decided to revive the Philadelphia Center tradition of offering souvenir ceramic coffee mugs for sale. (At least two editions of these pre-Pig artifacts are known to material culture scholars, distinguished by the inability of one version to survive the modern dishwasher.) In an early example of on-line research, one of the 2000–2001 fellows identified an extraordinarily low price for a handsome vessel featuring the McNeil Center logo on one side and the Pig on the other. The Director immediately suggested that, with such an attractive deal, a thousand mugs should be ordered to present to speakers, dignitaries, and other worthies. But the Pig had a trick up their tee-shirt sleeve. When the truckload of boxes arrived, each containing four dozen mugs and weighing less than five pounds, the swinish chimera revealed itself to be not ceramic at all, but plastic. For well over a decade, then, the infamous Plastic Pig Mug became ubiquitous around the Center; too cheap to bestow on dignitaries but too numerous to be disregarded, these sturdy artifacts found their way into the hands of nearly every undignified person who ever darkened the door. From that point forward, the Pig appeared on all manner of tchotchkes, from beer steins to travel cups (the latter guaranteed to spill your favorite beverage all over your favorite Pigshirt), to lunch sacks, notebooks, book and tote bags, umbrellas, bottle openers, neckties, and even actual ceramic mugs. The Porcine Apogee, perhaps, occurred in 2014–2015, when a fellows’ class, whose members daily tossed around a football dubbed “the Pig Skin of Knowledge,” arranged for an enormous ice sculpture of our mascot to appear at the final seminar and picnic of the academic year.

But why, wise observers continue to ask, has this Pig of Mystery become associated at all with such an august research institution? The porcine horizon had very human origins. A University of Minnesota graduate student affiliated with the Center in that fateful academic year 1997–1998 named Brett Mizelle—now Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach—was completing a dissertation on animals as objects of entertainment in the early U.S. republic. Among his proto-Barnum subjects was a man named William Frederick Pinchbeck, who is generally credited with bringing to U.S. audiences an act long popular in England known as a “pig of knowledge,” or a “learned pig.” These non-human geniuses amazed audiences by choosing among cards laid on the stage to spell out words and answer various questions.  In both Britain and the U.S., some critics insisted that only physical punishment, if not outright torture, could make an animal do such tricks. Others (or so Pinchbeck claimed) believed the hogs actually could spell, and attributed the phenomenon to witchcraft or other diabolical acts. One “grave old gentleman” supposedly even insisted “that the Pig ought to be burnt, and the Man banished” because he “corresponded with the devil.” Much the same might be said of some contemporary early Americanists.

Figure 4. A mug from 2000-2001 where the obverse shows an early logo for the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the reverse shows the Pig of Knowledge. Photo by author.

To set the record straight (and make a few more bucks), Pinchbeck published a tell-all book, in which he explained how to gently train a pig to follow a trainer’s subtle cues along with exposing the secrets to several other popular trick entertainments. The image of The Pig of Knowledge that we have come to love and cherish at the McNeil Center and EAS served as the frontispiece to Pinchbeck’s book. But not exactly. In collaboration with the ever-tricky Pig of Knowledge, Mizelle transmuted the stodgy six-letter Massachusetts city name that Pinchbeck’s Pig was originally alleged to be spelling into the much more appropriate and pleasing “PHILLY.” Readers who rely on the Early American Imprints copy of Pinchbeck will be none the wiser because the frontispiece is missing from the online version.

Still, why has the Pig of Knowledge become so deeply rooted in the McNeil Center’s culture? First, the porker was introduced by a graduate student, and nothing could better reflect the Center’s core mission than that. Then there is that pithy motto, complete with its quaint italicized long s’s. Tautological as it may be, what better scholarly advice could be on offer? Associated with that wise tautology is a series of conundrums truly worthy of close observation: an inaugural publication labeled “volume 2,” a plastic ceramic mug, an historical source that resists straightforward reading, and a text too polysemic to pigeonhole. Indeed, the Pig themself is richly polysemic: a culturally dubious figure that hogs all the knowledge, hungrily digests it, and then spreads it swinishly around. So, finally, with its diverse messages, the Pig is impossible to take too seriously—even for Pinchbeck who claimed, tongue-in-cheek, that he intended his book “not only to amuse and instruct, but also to convince superstition of her many ridiculous errors.” Mizelle brought a similar wit to the eclectic website he maintained until 2012 called “The Wonderful Pig of Knowledge” and to the marvelous short book Pig, published by Reaktion Books in 2011. Subsequent McNeil Center fellows could do far worse than to grant their own work the true nobility of purpose that comes with refusing to take themselves too seriously. “To be wise, observe.”

Daniel K. Richter is Roy and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania and author of, among other works, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. For more than twenty years, he was the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Throughout that time, the subject of this profile rooted indefatigably for the cause.