Posted on 10 Dec 2012 22:22
Although it is not as widely practiced today as it once was, you can still find bakeries or bagel shops that, as a matter of course, include 13 items (or more) when a dozen are bought. This is the baker's dozen. Why did bakers take to this practice? Are bakers just generally kindhearted types who want to give their patron more than they bargained for? That would be nice, wouldn't it?
Unfortunately, the baker's dozen came out of practical self-interest, with London bakers of old. Used to be that loaves of bread were not sold according to quantity, but according to weight. But let's back up a bit.
See, it's not just bread that used to be sold by weight, it was darn near everything. Remember, in "olden-times" people purchased raw goods and since raw goods don't come in handy uniform sizes and weights, things had to be sold according to how much they weighed, not how many of them you wanted. And if you are talking about grains of wheat, well, it should be fairly obvious that weight is the way to go. Any ancient civilization would need a system of weights and measure. We in America have pounds, ounces, etc. which we got from the English (who now use metric) but guess what: the English got if from the Romans. That is, when the Romans ruled Britain, they established weights and measure standards and these persisted for hundreds of years after the Roman's had skedaddled. So the English pound, ounce, pence, mile and all of that sort of thing originated with Roman measures (there were some Saxon ones kept as well).
If people were selling things according to weight, then you can bet that selling things under-weight came to be a common practice. You know, the guy puts his thumb on the scale? Or the counter-weights are not the proper weight. Someone had to set standards and regulate things. Usually, in medieval times, different industries regulated themselves, in order to protect the industry from being maligned by crooks and cheaters. For London bakers this was the Worshipful Company of Bakers. They, reportedly, instituted the practice of adding a little extra to a loaf, which was called the in-bread. So, for instance, an extra slice (or two) would be added to a loaf of bread, or a full loaf would be added to every twelve sold. But why? A loaf of bread is a loaf of bread, right?
Wrong. Today, a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread. Even when we buy form the baker we generally do not worry about paying a fixed price for, say, a baguette, even if they all aren't strictly identical. They are close enough. But it used to be a lot harder to make loaves of a consistent size and weight.
Most sources report that in 1266 King Henry III adopted an old practice called the Assisa Panis et Cervisae or the Assize of Bread and Ale. This regulated the weight of bread, and if a baker came up short they could get some very severe penalties. However, prior to this, when control of bakers and brewers rested almost entirely with local authorities, assizes on bread (bread and ale were sometimes grouped together since at least 1202) was quite common and widespread in Britain, some so strict they were regulated on pain of the pillory! These assizes were assessed according to the price of wheat, so that a fixed price could be set as supply and price changed but demand stayed the same. Lest you think that a slap on the wrist was all that awaited the offender, King Henry's assize was enforced by the Tumbril and Pillory Statute which said that repeat offenders would be subjected to corporeal punishment: bakers to the pillory, brewers to the tumbril or flogging.
For a baker, it was easy to trick a person by the size of a loaf, because a larger size does not necessarily mean a higher weight. If there is more air (the holes inside the bread) there is less weight and so less bread. But for bakers it was difficult to make sure all loaves were exactly the same size and weight. Not all of them had accurate scales, or any scales at all. Some loaves are bound to be a little small or a little light. So what do you do? You throw in a little extra for good measure. For instance, when you sell a loaf, you throw in an extra slice or two. This was called the inbread. And, for every dozen loaves, you throw in an extra one (or two). This was called the vantage loaf. Although the practice wasn't strictly limited to adding a thirteenth loaf to an order of a dozen, and sometimes more might be added, a baker's dozen came to mean thirteen.
Now, of course, this isn't the only story. Another popular theory is that dealers, around the 1500s, were allowed to receive 13 loaves for the price of 12, the 13th being their profit. The former story seems to be the most widely reported, however, the truth is that Santa Claus started the tradition. Did you know that Santa Claus expects 13 cookies on Christmas night? If you give him a dozen, you won't get any presents.
St. Nicholas and the Baker's Dozen
In 1836 a guy from the Hudson Valley areas named James Kirke Paulding wrote a book called The Book of Saint Nicholas1. You know St. Nicholas, as in "Jolly Old St. Nick" or Santa Claus. The real St. Nicholas was a dude from Patara, Greece who was a devout christian and took Jesus' words to heart, dedicating his life to giving to those in need. Although giving to children wasn't his only thing, he supposedly had a special place in his heart for them, and is thus the origin of the Santa Claus myth.
Anyway, in his book, Paulding included a story called The Origin of the Baker's Dozen. He wrote that in 1655 St. Nicholas, in the guise of an old woman, visited a New Amsterdam baker called Little Boss Boomptie, or Boss Boomptie to his employees. Boomptie was apparently a pious but not very honest man and, big believers in demonology and witchcraft, his family had the unfortunate habit of being bewitched. Bewitching incidents aside, Boomptie did quite well for himself and lived a comfortable life.
Now in that year of 1655, New Amsterdam was under the patronage of the good St. Nick, and on Newyear's eve St. Nick was running up and down chimney's giving cakes to good boys and girls and whips to bad ones. In the meantime, old Bomptie was enjoying a banner business on cakes himself, and just having a grand old time of it between customers, throwing back the spiced rum and dancing with his family in the back room. He wasn't alone, as most of the town, having been keeping a stiff upper lip the whole year, tended to let loose on the holidays, and no follower of St. Nicholas went to bed before twelve o'clock.
So round about midnight Boomptie was drunkenly singing a Dutch song in honor of St. Nicholas and just as the clock struck the new year there was a loud knock on the shop counter, causing Boomptie to remember his true vocation, which was not out-of-tune singing but trading. He made haste to the shop and beheld an ugly old woman leaning on a crooked black stick, fire-burned and then polished. Her chin was pointy, her cheek bones were high and sharp, her eyes were black, and her lips were thin. She wore some crazy leather spectacles on here nose, which was even sharper than her chin.
"I want a dozen Newyear cookies," screamed the old woman, her voice sharper yet than her nose (everything about this old woman, it seems, was pointy and sharp).
Boomptie told her there was no need to shout, a bit offended by the unwelcome sound of her pointy voice after the pleasing sound of his own raised in song.
Undaunted, she screamed again, "I want a dozen Newyear cookies," this time ten times louder and shriller.
Grumbling under his breath that he was not deaf, Boomptie counted out the cakes for the old woman, which she very carefully counted after him.
"I want a dozen," she screamed, "here is only twelve."
"well, then, and what the devel is twelve but a dozen?" said Boomptie.
"I tell you I want one more," screamed the woman in a voice so loud that Mrs. Boomptie came and peeped out of the back room, which was her common practice when she heard her husband talking to the ladies.
By this time, Boomptie, hot-headed from the hot spiced rum, was pretty much fit to burst, so he said, in essence, "Well, then, you can go to hell and get another one, because you ain't gettin it here."
Now if this had been a pretty young woman instead of a pointy and shrill old hag, Boomptie might have been more generous, as he had no problem throwing in some extra cakes for a little smack here and there, which explains Mrs. Boomptie's habit of peeking out from the back room with women were in the shop. But as generous as he was to the pretty ladies, Boomptie was stingy towards the ugly ones.
"In my country they always give thirteen to the dozen," screamed the ugly woman.
"And where the hell is your country?" asked Boomptie.
"It is nobody's business! But will you give me another cake, once and for all?"
"Not if it saved me and my whole generation from being bewitched and demon-plagued, dime out of mind!" cried Boomptie. Must have been the rum.
The old woman gave him three stivers for the cakes and went away grumbling about how he would live to repent it, which Boomptie didn't give a darn about, having got himself a full head full of steam and a helping of Dutch courage, being set to defy all the ugly old women who might come around. He put away the money, closed up shop, and resolved to enjoy the rest of the night without any other disturbance.
Not long after came a jingling sound from the shop, sounding like somebody was messing with his money til. Thinking a petty thief, Boomptie armed himself with some more Dutch courage and a pine knot torch[footnote]]A pine knot torch, just called a "pine knot" in those days, was a basically a pine limb that had broken free of the tree at it's base, where resin formed and would burn slowly when lit, making it the cheapest kind of torch, since all you had to do was find a loose pine limb in the woods, rather than burning expensive candles.[[/footnote]], and went to investigate the disturbance. When he got to the til, however, he found that all was safe. Having determined that he must have got a ringing in his ears (and presumably his wife as well), he turned back to repair himself once again to the back room. No sooner had he done so than the jingling noise began again, startling Boss Boomptie quite a bit, only his generous fortification of Dutch courage saving him from a great fright.
But old Boomptie was not frightened. He marched right over to the til and opened it up. What does he see, to his great astonishment, than the very same stivers that the old woman had paid dancing and kicking up dust among the coppers and wampum with great agility.
"What the hell?" he exclaimed. "The devil has got into that old sinner's stivers, I think!"
He was very tempted to throw them away, but he felt it a pity to waste so much money, so he locked them back up, urging them to behave themselves in the meantime, and determining to spend them the next day on something nice. More rum, you can bet.
In the morning, though, the coins were gone, and so was the broom that was used to sweep out the shop. When the neighbors heard about the theft of the broom, they said they had seen an old woman riding a broom just like it in the air over the top of the little bakehouse, a revelation that caused Boss Boomptie to quake in his boots and wish that he had indeed given the old woman thirteen to the dozen.
Nothing much happened the next day except that the children complained of having pins stuck in their backs and their cookies snatched away from an unknown and unseen cookie snatcher. Upon examination, the backs of the children bore no pin marks. And the old kitchen woman said that she saw an invisible hand just as one of the children lost his cookie (don't ask me how she was able to see an invisible hand).
"Then I'm bewitched for sure!" cried Boomptie in despair. He well knew witchcraft and demonology when he saw them since, as you recall, it ran in his family to be bewitched and, umm, demonized.
The next day, which was the second day of the year, all the apprentices were back and Boomptie set about the business of baking bread again, seeking solace in his work. Now, in those days they would make bread dough in huge batches in a gigantic bread tray big enough to climb into. The little apprentice boys would get into the dough tray and waddle about "like ducks in a mill pond" so as to quickly knead the dough and set it to rising in an efficient manner. But this time when the little dudes began their dough dance, they all got stuck fast, as if the dough were pitch and as they did, the whole mess rose up in a great mass with the boys all stuck to the top of it!
"What bliksager?" exclaimed little Boomptie. "The devil has gotten into the yeast, this time, I think."1
The bread having turned into what was basically a big balloon, floated up and up until it lifted the roof clean off the bakehouse, the apprentices still on top, and the bread tray following after. The bread balloon kept on rising and floating away until it disappeared behind the Jersey hills. Keep in mind, that the people of New Amsterdam knew nothing of balloons in those days, so such a spectacle would be without precedent, but they apparently thought it was a water spout.
Little Boomptie mourned the loss of his bread and his apprentice boys, whom he never expected to see again. But not one to sit and cry, he got back to work on a new batch of bread, knowing that his customers must be kept in bread despite witchcraft or demonology.
This time, to make sure the bread didn't rise up and float away again, he decided to do it down in the basement, and he set the tray upside down. Therefore, instead of rising, the bread began to sink into the earth so quickly that Boomptie barely had enough time to jump off the tray before it disappeared down into the ground, which opened up to receive it "just like a snuffbox."
"What bliksager is that!" he cried again. "My bread rises downward this time. My customers must go without today."
By and by the customers came for rolls or muffins and Boomptie told them of how some had gone up and some had gone down. Nobody believed him, though, and if hadn't been the only baker in town, he probably would have lost all his customers. But among these customers was the pointy old woman with the leather spectacles.
"I want a dozen Newyear cookies!" she screamed as before.
"Vuur en vlammen!" muttered Boomptie as he counted out twelve cookies.2
"I want one more!" she cried as before.
"Then you can go to the devil and get it, I say, for you will not get another here, I tell you." Boomptie had already forgotten his earlier regret that he had refused the woman her thirteenth cookie, apparently. So, once again, the old lady took her cakes and went out, grumbling.
Later that night Little Boomptie took a stroll a little ways out of town to the Maiden's Valley, to see a friend. As he was walking with his hands behind his back, as was his habit, he would now and again feel something as cold as death against them, but could never figure out what it was, since there was no one around except for his old dog, which had been mighty upset by the old lady, by the way.
At the same time, Mrs. Boomptie had gone to buy a half pound of tea at the grocery store, and was walking home with it in her pocket. With every step she took she kept feeling a twitching and jerking at the package of tea. The faster she ran the quicker and stronger was the twitching and jerking, so that by the time she got home the poor woman was nigh to faint. After she calmed herself down and got up her nerve, she took the tea out of her pocket and placed it on the table, where it started moving around in fits and starts, jumped off the table, hopped out the door, and made its way bag to the store it came from under tea-power alone. When the tea came into the grocery store the grocer said, "Oh, look, Mrs. Boomptie's tea came back, I must have forgotten to cut the twine binding it, I better bring it to her."[[Doesn't make sense to me either, but I'm not a 13th century Dutch person. Who is, right?[[/footnote]] And he did. But Mrs. Boomptie would have none of it, having determined that the unusual behavior of the tea was a divine comment upon her having spent so much money for it. She didn't take well to the grocer's twine theory either, and only consented to having her money returned to her.
Later, when they discussed the matter, Little Boomptie and his wife decided that they for sure had been bewitched. The stuff that happened next would leave no doubt in the matter.
That same night, Mrs. Boomptie had a sort of breakdown. She would laugh about nothing for a while, then she would cry about nothing, then she would start working and talk about nothing for an hour straight, in a language nobody understood. Then, all at once, her tongue would cleave to the roof of her mouth and refuse to come unstuck no matter what. When this was over she would get up and dance to beat the band, till she was tuckered out, upon which time she went to sleep and woke up later acting normally again.
There was some talk about her being possessed, because she had a Linda Blair moment when she talked very fast and loud, but without her lips moving, and her voice came from way down in her throat. And most of the talk was slandering the good pastor Dominie Laidlie of the Garden-street Church, which lent credence to the theory that she was possessed by the devil. She also got a pen and started drawing "mysterious and diabolical" figures, which nobody knew what to make of, although I am of the opinion that this is a bit of an overreaction to doodling session.
If you think his wife had it bad, Little Boomptie had it worse still. He was plagued by an invisible hand, which got up to all sorts of no-good at Boomptie's expense. For instance, when he was standing at his counter talking to a neighbor one morning, the hand gave him a very hard box on the ear, and Boomptie, thinking his neighbor had done it, socked his friend upside the cheek so hard that he laid him out. The law was brought into the matter and the neighbor tried to prove that he had had both hands in his pockets at the time and so couldn't have boxed old Boomptie in the ear, and that therefore Boomptie's attack had been unprovoked. Boomptie maintained that he had most definitely been ear-boxed by the neighbor and the magistrate, not being able to get anywhere in the matter, charged them both 25 guilders for court expenses.
Then another day the invisible hand threw a dried codfish at his head and right after this his walking stick joined in the fun and started beating him all of its own accord. Then things went completely poltergeist and a table danced around the room and jumped up onto the dinner table and started eating the food, being a complete glutton about it, to the extent that the chair would have consumed the entire dinner if the children hadn't managed to snatch some of it away.
And then, well, you may have heard about this part: The cow jumped over the moon, and a dish ran away with a spoon. And the spoon (I don't know if you've heard this last part) grabbed a cat by the tail and ran off with it, both merry as crickets.
Other times, when Boomptie had some money or cakes, or maybe a loaf of bread in his hand, he would, for no good reason at all, throw them in the fire instead of putting them away where they belonged. Then the invisible hand would beat him with flour sack until he was covered over in flour and looked as white as a miller. He also couldn't keep his accounts, for whenever he sat down to work on them, the invisible hand would snatch away with ink horn, which later would come tumbling down the chimney.
At night he had his nightcap torn off his head, his hair pulled out in handfuls, his face scratched, his ear pinched as if with red-hot pincers. If he went out in the yard at night, he would be pelted with bricks, sticks, stones, and anything that made a handy to be hurled at a person. And if he stayed inside ashes would get blown onto his supper, and old shoes would be on the table instead of plates. Plus, at night, an old frying pan would clang for a whole hour all by itself. At some point, Boss Boomptie also had three-pronged fork stick itself into his back, which did not hurt him at all.
What really freaked out the neighbors was when Boss Boomptie all at once started speaking in and unknown, and very uncouth, language, which was later found out to be English. In general, the people were either frightened or scandalized and before long Boomptie's shop was pretty much deserted. Nobody wanted to eat his bread for fear of being bewitched themselves. To make matters worse, a couple of kids complained of terrible stomach pains after eating two or three dozen of the Newyear cookies.
Things went on in this manner until the next Newyear's eve, when Boss Boomptie was sitting at his counter, which should have been swamped with customers on this night, but was now deserted. As Boomptie sat their lamenting his horrible straits, in walked the pointy old woman, leather spectacle's, black cane, and all.
"So it's you, you trickster," yelled Boomptie, "what do you want now?" (Are you thinking that he was a tad slow?)
"I want a dozen Newyear cookies!" screamed the old witch.
So Boomptie counted out twelve.
"I want one more," she screamed, louder than ever, to which Boomptie replied the equivalent of "When pigs fly!"
The old woman offered him six stivers, which he refused, saying he wanted none of her devil's money and telling her to get lost, by calling her, get this, the devil's housewife (talk about a glutton for punishment.)
The old lady went away grumbling once again.
That night, more bricks started flying, and darn near destroyed his house. Then a cat, who had up to this point been easy-going and respectable, jumped up and scratched Boomptie half to death, before disappearing up the chimney, ending up in Buttermilk Channel swimming like speedboat, her tail as the propeller.
Mrs Boomptie continued to be plagued in various ways as well, which culminated in having her tongue tied up so that she could not speak, but only sit, cry and wring her hands.
As before, the various shenanigans went on until the next Newyear's eve, when Boomptie decided he would party down a little, "despite the devil" as he put it. So he got his wife to make him some hot spiced rum, which is how all this mess started, if you ask me, and he designed to drink it in order to fortify himself against the continued assault of the flying bricks. But, lo and behold, every time he would try to take a sip out of the mug, the old invisible hand would box him on the ear and snatch the mug away, and drink up every drop, presumably with an invisible mouth. Then came an evil laugh from down in the cellar, as if finding the whole thing a quite funny joke.
The stealing of his rum right off his lips, as it were, was pretty much all that Boomptie could take. The straw had finally alighted on the camel's back.
"Good heavens! cried he, "How can this be? Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas! What will become of me?"
No sooner had he said this than came the sound of horse's hoofs in the chimney and a light wagon drawn by a little pony rolled into the room, loaded down with all sorts of knickknacks. The wagon was driven by that jolly old elf, dressed pretty much like you'd expect, except underneath his red suit he had on a kind of blue Dutch pea jacket with gold lace and was also wearing yellow stockings and a pair of skates. In addition, he was smoking a Meershaum pipe, which you'd never see Santa do these days, having been on the patch.
Boomptie, unlike you and me, had never met old Santa and thought he was a pretty strange kind of dude. But there was something about him, being so jolly and good-natured and all, that made Boss Boomptie's heart grow two sizes, and he felt friendly toward the stranger right off the bat.
"Oranje boven," says Santa, removing his hat and bowing to Mrs Boomptie in her corner.
"What the…?" said Boomptie, taking the words right out of his wife's mouth, who couldn't speak, you remember.
"You called on Saint Nicholas. Here I am." said Santa Claus in his jolly manner. "In one word - for I am a saint of few words, and have my hands full of business tonight — in one word, tell me what you want."
"I am bewitched," said Boss Boomptie. "The devil is in me, my house, my wife, my Newyear cookies, and my children. What shall I do?"
So Santa told him, "When you count a dozen you must count thirteen."
"Are you kidding me? muttered Boomptie, "when you count a dozen you must count thirteen!" What kind of nonsense is that? I never heard of such counting. By Saint Johannes de Dooper, Saint Nicholas is a great big dunderhead!"
Just as he uttered this blasphemy against Saint Nick, he saw through the back room's door the ugly old lady getting off her broom at the front door of the shop.
"There comes the devil's kin again." Her unwelcome appearance was made all the worse since the invisible hand chose that moment to give Boomptie a big box on the ear. But never being able to neglect a customer, no matter how bad a mood he was in, Boomptie went immediately to the counter.
"I want a dozen Newyear cookies," she screamed as usual, and as usual Boomptie counted out twelve.
"I want another one!" she cried.
"Aha!" thought Little Boomptie, who must have been inspired by little old St. Nick nonetheless. "It's good fishing in troubled waters — when you count a dozen you must count thirteen. Ha—ha! Ho—ho—ho! And he counted out the thirteenth cookie like a brave fellow.
The old woman gave a low courtsey and laughed until she might have shown her teeth, if she had had any.
"Friend Boomptie," said she, in a modulated scream, "I love such generous little fellows as you, in my heart. I salute you." Then she made to give him a kiss, a proposition which Boomptie did not relish, but to which he submitted with great grace, doubtless inspired by Saint Nicholas.
At that moment there came an explosion from the back room and Mrs. Boomptie cried out, "You false-hearted villain, I have found out your tricks at last!"
"The ignorant Philistine!" cried Boss Boomptie, "She's come to her speech now!"
"The spell is broken," screamed the old woman. "The spell is broken and from this moment on, a dozen is thirteen, and thirteen is a dozen. There shall be thirteen Newyear cookies to the dozen, as a type of the thirteen mighty states that are to arise out of the ruins of the government of the fatherland!"
Then she took a Newyear cookie which had on it the effigy of the blessed St. Nicholas, and she made Boss Boomptie swear upon it, that for ever afterwards twelve should be thirteen and thirteen should be twelve. When this was finished, she mounted her broomstick and disappeared, just as the clock struck twelve.
Now the spell that had hung over Boss Boomptie was broken, never to come again, and he became famous for baking the most boss Newyear cookies in the country and everything went back to normal at the shop. The apprentice boys came back and went to work on the bread dough, having had unknown adventures. And, from then on, in New Amsterdam, every baker always counted out a dozen as thirteen.
Notes on the Story
And that is the story. It's a lot more entertaining than the story above about the weight of bread, isn't it? But it may as well have been donuts Boomptie was selling, as the story has a big hole in it. That is, if a dozen was officially declared to be thirteen by a saint, we'd be in the same fix, in danger of having someone demand 14 on the dozen! Seems Paulding didn't think of that when he made it up. He claimed, however, that it was an old Dutch folk-tale. To my knowledge, no other instances of it have ever been found in recorded literature.
I translated some a good deal of the original Dutch dialog into English, as best I could. If it is not accurate in content, it is in spirit. In the original story there is a peculiar mix of Dutch and English. The word cookie stands out, as this is not the Dutch word for the treats. This is explained by the publishing date of the book, 1836, well after New Amsterdam had been taken over by the English and much of the original Dutch words had been anglicized. You can read more about the Dutch word for cookies in Origin of the Word Cookie and some Notes on the British and American Biscuit versus Cracker Conundrum.
By the way, I know it did not escape your notice that Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) was coming down the chimney on New Year's eve, not Christmas eve. I do not know whether this is an accurate depiction of New Amsterdam (which became New York), since in the Netherlands, people opened presents on December 5, which is Saint Nicholas Day and the time of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, although today the December 25th tradition has been adopted and has overshadowed the original tradition.
The image of the saint there is not fat and jolly at all. In fact, he is very thin and dresses in robes, more like the Pope, with a big Bishop's hat (see images above). The gold lace as described in the story is about right. There, he is called Sinterklaas and the Sinterklaas Festival actually begins in November. The saint does not arrive behind a wagon pulled by small ponies, but riding a white horse named Amerigo. He is also accompanied by a black companion (or more than one), referred to in the past, from Germanic origins, by many names, but usually called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) in the Netherlands. This tradition, because of its roots having distinctly racists overtones, will will leave alone. It is beyond the scope of a post on baked goods, anyway. However, on December 5, Sinterklaas and his companion(s) are said to ride over the rooftops to distribute presents, although it is Zwarte Piet who descends the chimneys. Originally, he was said to throw candy or other knicknacks down the chimney, and the bidding of Sinterklaas, where they would land in children's shoes left out for the occasion.