THE HISTORIAN: Pigs played a large role in Pennsylvania German life

A note in the publication American Farmer, 1819, reports that an exhibition at a fair showed a “pig with a wooden leg on the off side [left front] before which appears to walk with little lameness or inconvenience.”

This note reminds me of the following story of years ago: “On approaching a farm house, in the yard a peddler noticed a pig with a wooden back leg and couldn’t help asking about it. ‘Why, that pig,’ the farmer said, ‘is a hero. One night the barn started to burn and that pig squealed and scratched at the house door until I got up, saw the fire and put it out. That pig’s special.’ ‘Well, why the wooden back leg?’ asked the peddler. ‘Oh my,’ said the farmer, ‘a heroic pig like that you don’t eat all at once.’”

In the early days around here, swine were close competitors to cattle as the most important livestock. Indeed, pork was always more expensive than beef. People preferred the flavor of pork, and it was much more versatile than the stringy, tough beef that had to be aggressively boiled until it became somewhat palatable. Beef in those days usually came from old, unproductive cows and bulls slaughtered on the farm by the local butcher. The butcher got a share of meat for his pay and the hide was stripped off and sold to the village tanner.

So important to the early Pennsylvania German life was the pig that Richard Beam’s Pennsylvania Dutch Dictionary lists no fewer than 110 words or terms relating to pigs, pig feeding and pig butchering.


Pigs were brought to the Delaware Valley by the early Dutch and Swedish settlers and, of course, by the Germans. They multiplied rapidly and required little or no feed as they happily foraged in the wild. Pigs, like people, are omnivores and will eat anything. Principally feeding on mast — acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and roots — herds of swine soon went feral and became true denizens of the wild. Were it not for bears, wolves and mountain lions, herds of wild pigs would have completely reverted to the wild boar type of Europe from which they had developed — lean, swift, and fierce — and would have populated the wilderness like deer.

In the colonial era, each farmer’s pigs ran wild. Pig pens, sei schtall in the dialect, didn’t became common until the 19th century. At enormous labor, all fields were of necessity fenced against pigs and other free ranging livestock.

Accordingly, an anecdote in Fletcher’s Pennsylvania Agriculture … 1640-1840 quotes an English farmer who visited here in 1798. He wrote, “The real American hog is what is termed a woodhog; they are long in the leg, narrow in the back, short in the body, flat on the sides, with a long snout, very rough in their hair, in make more like a fish called a perch than anything I can describe. [As to fencing] you may as well think of stopping a crow as these hogs. They will go a distance from a fence, take a run, and leap through the rails three or four feet from the ground, turning themselves sideways … It is customary to keep them in the woods in winter … and they must live on the roots of trees or something of that sort. They are poor beyond any creature that I ever saw.”

On a more positive note, a century earlier, another Englishman, Gabriel Thomas, wrote of the area around Philadelphia: “They have great stocks of Hogs kept in the woods … I saw a Hog kill’d about a year old which weighed two hundred weight; whose Flesh is much sweeter and even more luscious than that in England, because they feed and fatten on the rich (though wild) Fruits, besides those fattened at home by Peaches, Cherries, and Apples.”

After 1700, nearly every farmer raised swine. Of course, sorting out ownership of “woodhogs” was always a problem, and pig stealing was endemic leading to feuds and grudges between neighbors. Laws requiring branding were passed, which were some help. Some farmers took to calling their pigs home at night with corn and such, making them easy to pen come the end of November, the pork season.

Into the 19th century, as the supply of mast and wild food diminished, it became customary to pen hogs before butchering to fatten them with corn but also potatoes, beans, apples, peaches or anything else. Eventually, every farm had a pig pen where hogs were confined and fed year-round.

When creameries developed at the end of the 19th century, farmers brought home the skim milk, which was poured into the swill barrel by the pig pen. Skim milk, along with kitchen scraps and anything else vaguely edible, was dumped into the barrel wherein it fermented and became foul; however, the rankness repulsed the pigs not a whit, and buckets of swill were poured into the iron pig trough as needed.

Depending on the availability of feed, some farmers killed pigs when they were 1 year old, some waited until they were 2; but pigs were usually slaughtered when they weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, usually at around 18 months of age.

The usual method of killing was to stun them with a blow to the head from a sledge hammer or the blunt end of an ax. Then the arteries of the neck were cut so they would bleed out, which improved the meat. The meat of adult boars was said to be strong, so they were often castrated. Castration was brutal and by all accounts acutely painful, but it was a hard age and the animal’s pain was not a consideration.