The number twelve has had special significance for man since the ancient times, from Jesus' twelve apostles to twelve full moons per year and twelve months in a year. There are twelve inches in a foot and twelve hourly divisions on a clock. There are twelve zodiac signs, twelve tribes of Israel and twelve Knights of the Round Table. There are twelve days of Christmas. But what does any of that have to do with why eggs are sold by the dozen?
Eggs too have had an important significance throughout history. To Christians, an egg represents the resurrection of Jesus. Eggs universally represent rebirth, fertility and new life. Eggs have been eaten and used in baking reportedly as early as 25 BC. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, eggs were typically sold at markets individually, with the buyer choosing the number of eggs they wished to buy from a large basket the seller had on display and transporting them home with their other market purchases in a smaller handheld basket.
In Western Europe, particularly England, from as early as the 700s and continuing right up until around 1960, the Imperial Unit System was used. Under this system, there were twelve pennies to a shilling, likely because of the huge importance of the number twelve to civilization. This meant that an egg could be sold for a penny, or a dozen eggs could be sold for a shilling, with no change-making required. Breads and rolls were sold the same way at market. It made it simpler to sell individual units this way and group them into sets of twelve. By the Elizabethan period, roughly 1550-1600, selling eggs by the dozen was the standard practice, and several years later, the settlers coming to North America brought the same system with them and eggs continued to be sold in sets of twelve.
Clearly old habits die hard! Even with the advent of the decimal system in Europe and elsewhere, eggs still continue to be sold by the dozen for the most part, although in some countries they are sold in cartons of ten.
So that's why eggs are sold by the dozen to this day, but where does the term 'baker's dozen' come from? Well, in the 13th century, King Henry III ruled that severe penalties would be inflicted on bakers and others selling goods at market if they cheated their customers. To ensure that the buyers were not being accidentally shortchanged, it became common practice for the baker or farmer to put an extra roll or egg into each customer's basket. Hence, a baker's dozen is thirteen, not twelve.
Some trivia for you:
The modern egg carton wasn't invented until 1911 in Canada. Several years prior, in 1906, an 'egg box' was invented in England which was basically a wooden box with slats to keep the eggs from breaking. By this time, the practice of selling eggs in dozens was commonplace and cartons started to be manufactured commercially that held twelve eggs.
A 'gross' is a dozen dozen.
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