Answer Man

Here’s the origin of the phrase ‘getting down to brass tacks’

Q: When people prepare to discuss serious business, they often say they’re “getting down to brass tacks.” Why tacks? Why brass?

Bill Hearty, of Cahokia

A: This subject may be more deadly serious than you might imagine. In fact, the expression began to pop up shortly before Abraham Lincoln was laid to rest.

As you almost certainly know, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth while enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. For the next three days, undertaker R.F. Harvey and his employees worked feverishly to design and manufacture a coffin suitable for a president of the United States. What resulted was described in detail in the April 17 issue of the Washington Star:

“The outside of the coffin is festooned with massive silver tacks representing drapery, in each fold of which is a silver star. There are eight massive handles to the coffin, four being placed on each side. A row of silver tacks encircles the entire top of the coffin, while a silver plate, encircled by a shield formed of tacks of the same material, occupies a central position on the top lid ... ”

Back then, using tacks was a popular method of decorating one’s last resting place. I’ve found accounts of families using them to spell out the deceased’s initials on them. But unlike for a head of state, silver would have been too gaudy — and too expensive — for average families, so they settled for brass-headed tacks and baser materials. As a result, etymologists argue, getting down to brass tacks became synonymous with getting down to serious business — in this case, the very serious business of death.

As best that can be determined, the expression began to blossom when the use of “coffin” tacks was in full flower. Fred Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” is usually credited with finding the first written usage of the phrase in the Jan. 21, 1863, edition of the Houston, Texas, Tri-Weekly Telegraph: “When you come down to ‘brass tacks’ — if we may be allowed the expression — everybody is governed by selfishness.”

After that, references are commonly found across the nation. “The Galveston Bulletin says that Texas must ‘come down to brass tacks’ and accept the constitutional amendment,” the Bangor (Maine) Daily Whig & Courier reported on Jan. 12, 1867. “To use the homely phrase, and come down to ‘brass tacks,’ the issue fought in the late elections was well-recognized and clearly defined,” the Wheeling (West Virginia) Intelligencer wrote on May 20, 1867.

By the mid-1800s. “coffin” tacks were offered by hardware dealers and marketed to undertakers as well as cabinetmakers, furniture companies and others who needed the shiny fasteners for a decorative touch, according to William F. Moore in his 1894 book, “Representative Men of Connecticut, 1861-1891.”

“You can here find a complete assortment of Coffin Trimmings, Handles Electro Plated ... Screws and Coffin tacks, French glass cut to order for the Lids ... ” according to an advertisement in the Ashland (Ohio) Union in 1854.

As a result, the Wyandot (Ohio) Pioneer on May 14, 1868, left no question that the common hardware store staple gave rise to the now-common expression.

“Bring things right down to brass tacks in all the affairs of this life and the millennium is not far away,” the story read. “Brass tacks — emblem of the only inevitable and last friend, the undertaker. Studded over our final ligneous adornment, brass tacks are suggestive of stern, inexorable reality. ... Brass tacks have equalized all human earthly conditions. The peer and peasant, king and common, old and young, wise and otherwise, lie down in a common mortality from which there is no escape.”

(Interesting aside: In the late 1890s, “coffin tacks/nails” had already become a euphemism for cigarettes. “The allies have signed a contract with a large American manufacturing firm for 400 million coffin nails,” the Clinch Valley (Virginia) News reported in 1915. “ ... the same old coffin nails dear Aunt Maria warns small Billy about.”)

Still, like so many attempts to pin down phrase origins, not all experts agree with this coffin-tack link, so let me give you a couple of other popular theories. According to one, brass-headed tacks were used in the foundation of chairs, so when you went to reupholster them, the tacks were last things you “got down” to after removing the covering and stuffing. Hence, that’s when the craftsman was really getting to the heart of the matter.

The other possibility involves country stores that sold fabric. To make measuring the fabric easier, owners would hammer brass tacks at common intervals — a yard, half-yard and quarter-yard. So after the customer picked the cloth, the clerk would say something like, “OK, I’ll measure it, so let’s get down to brass tacks.”

There’s little solid evidence supporting either of these last two theories, but I’ll let you nail down the one you think is most logical to you.

Today’s trivia

Originally, what was the difference between a coffin and a casket, according to wordsmiths?

Answer to Monday’s trivia: In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham were attracted to a cave north of Hot Springs, S.D., when wind blowing out of the cave blew Tom’s hat off. When Tom returned with friends a few days later, the air currents sucked his hat into the cave. Long a sacred place for area Indian tribes, Wind Cave today is a national park and is known for the whistling sounds it makes related to the atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface trying to equalize itself, according to the National Park Service.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer