The domesticated pig has gone through different sizes, shapes and body types since it first arrived in America, largely due to societal demands. During the 1930s and 40s, breeders produced pigs with lots of lard, because lard was used in the production of ammunition.
An old-time Chester White sow.
The National Association of Swine Records kept a well-documented history of the major swine breeds. In the 1930s, the champion barrow weighed 400 lbs. at the International Livestock Exposition, held at the stockyards in Chicago, Ill!
In the 1970s and 80s, the trend was toward a much bigger-framed, leaner, meatier pig. Packers wanted pigs that could go to heavier weights but still remain lean, and they began paying for lean carcasses. Consumers wanted leaner pork chops, too, so breeders answered the call. But the pendulum swung too far: Some producers failed to keep soundness and productivity in mind, and the breeds suffered as a result.
Duroc boar from the 1980s (A-1 Hog Farm).
Duroc gilt from the 1980s (A-1 Hog Farm).
A Long History
The pig dates back 40 million years to fossils that indicate wild porcine animals roamed forests and swamps in Europe and Asia. Pigs were domesticated in China around 4900 BC (although some experts claim 7000 to 6000BC in Western Asia) and were being raised in Europe by 1500 BC, according to the Austin Chronicle. It states:
Europe, being principally Christian, embraced the pig. Pigs ate almost anything, reproduced prodigiously, and their meat was easily preserved. By the 1500's in Europe, the Celtic people in the north were breeding large-bodied, well-muscled pigs, while in Southern Europe, the Iberians had developed smaller-framed, lard-type pigs. All of the pigs of this time period were dark-colored.
At Queen Isabella's insistence, Christopher Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. They were tough and could survive the voyage with minimal care, they supplied an emergency food source if needed, and those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips.
Hernando de Soto is considered the true "father of the American pork industry." He brought America's first 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1539. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork.
Poland China from 1930s.
Poland China from 1980s (NASR)
By the time de Soto died three years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to an estimated 700 or more, not including the pigs eaten by his troops, those that escaped and became wild pigs (the ancestors of today's feral pigs), and those given to the American Indians to keep the peace. The pork industry in America had begun.
At the end of the 1700s, pioneers started heading west, taking their utilitarian pigs with them. Wooden crates filled with young pigs often hung from the axles of prairie schooner wagons. As western herds increased, processing and packing facilities began to spring up in major cities.
Pigs were first commercially slaughtered in Cincinnati, which became known as "Porkopolis"; by the mid-1800s Cincinnati led the nation in pig processing. Getting the pigs to market in the 1850s was no small task. Drovers herded their pigs along trails, with the aid of drivers who handled up to 100 pigs each. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs were driven from Ohio to eastern markets in any given year.
U.S. Pigs Today
Genetics, diet, marketing trends and once more, consumer tastes, continue to evolve so the composition of modern pigs evolves as well. Pig farmers now consider all of the economic traits, along with consumer preferences, to produce pigs that are profitable to raise and desired by customers. An emphasis on litter size has helped define which breeds are best suited for female lines, while the meat traits are emphasized in boar lines. Progeny testing is commonly used to help identify which breeding lines are will bring the best results.
No doubt, body type and composition will continue to change in the future.