There are two, very unalike, stories competing to be the true derivation of the phrase, ‘bringing home the bacon’. One concerns loved-up couples in 12th-century Essex, while the other comes from the early 20th century and the world of boxing. Neither have anything to do with piggy jars!
In 1104, a tradition was born in the ancient town of Dunmow in Essex. One day, a couple begged for a blessing of their union a year and a day after their marriage. The Prior of the Augustinian monastery was so struck by their devotion to each other that he gave them a flitch, or side, of bacon. The 900-year-old ‘Dunmow Flitch’ still takes place today, once every four years, with couples trying to persuade a jury that they have “not wisht themselves unmarried again”. The successful pairs get to bring home the bacon.
The ‘Dunmow Flitch’ became well known around the country, and was mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century. Specifically, The Wife of Bath’s Tale: “But never for us the flitch of bacon though, that some may win in Essex at Dunmow.”
The second theory is much more recent, and more likely too. Around the 16th-17th centuries, the term ‘bacon’ started to be used as slang for a person’s body, although it is not clear why. When boxer Joe Gans was preparing for a fight with ‘Battling’ Oliver Nelson for the World Lightweight Championship on 3 September 1906, he was sent a telegram by his mother, which read:
“Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.”
After Gans won, a story in The New York Times claimed he replied saying he not only had the bacon, but the gravy as well. He then sent her his prize money.
Mrs Gans may not have made up the phrase, but she certainly popularised its use. Reports from other boxing matches began using ‘bring home the bacon’ and other sports commentary soon joined in.