The phrase “bring home the bacon” is commonly understood to mean to earn money. But where did the phrase come from? The answer might be surprising.
Most on-line sources claim the phrase originated in 1104 in a small town in Essex, England. A local Lord and his wife dressed themselves as common folk and asked the local Prior for a blessing for not arguing after a year of being married. The Prior, impressed by their devotion, gave them a side of bacon (a ‘flitch’). After revealing his true identity, the Lord gave land to the monastery on the condition they awarded flitches to couples who proved they were similarly devoted.
A regular contest was started with contestants coming from far and wide; the winners would bring home the bacon. This contest, called the Dunmow Flitch, still continues every four years. The tradition was certainly well known in England and therefore a plausible origin for the phrase. Chaucer mentioned it in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” (circa 1395) and there is a documented list of winners from the 1400’s in the British Museum.
However, I prefer another [sports] origin for bring home the bacon.
On September 3, 1906 Joe Gans won the world lightweight boxing championship in an epic 42-round battle (still the longest fight in modern boxing history). The next day, the Syracuse NY Post-Standard newspaper reported that Gans’ mother had sent him a telegram before the fight which read:
Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to Win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news. Bring home the bacon.”
(Other newspapers reported the story in a similar fashion.) According to a 1906 New York Times article, Gans replied to his mother that he “had not only the bacon, but the gravy.” Apparently, Gans also later sent his mother $6,000 of the $30,000 prize money.
Given the widespread coverage of the fight, within weeks the phrase became commonly-used by sports writers. At first, the references were limited to boxing but later expanded to other sports like horse racing, baseball, and football. Soon, bringing home the bacon became synonymous with winning and making money.
Joe Gans was the first African-American to win a World Boxing Championship, is in the Boxing Hall of Fame, and was perhaps the greatest lightweight boxer of all time. And, although she probably didn’t invent the phrase, Gans’ mother deserves credit for popularizing “bring home the bacon.” Score a knockout for Mrs. Gans.