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Getting Down to Brass Tacks — and Silver Ones

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and catch up with Comments on Etymology, that unique journal edited and self-published eight times each academic year by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. The journal is on paper only, but you can reach the editor/publisher by email at: gcohen@mst.edu.

So far this year Comments on Etymology has documented in detail the possible or likely origins of abacus, kibosh, ukulele, and jazz. Now brass tacks has its turn. The latest issue, Vol. 44 No. 7 for April 2015, devotes itself entirely to the sources of the mysterious phrase get down to brass tacks, in an article by Peter Reitan.

That phrase first appears in the 1860s in American newspapers, especially in Texas. It’s in a Houston newspaper of 1863: “When you come down to brass tacks — if we may be allowed the expression — everybody is governed by selfishness.” And it’s in a Galveston newspaper of 1867: “Texas must come down to brass tacks and accept the constitutional amendment, unless the people wish Congress to proceed with reconstruction.” Houston and Dallas newspapers used the phrase in the same way in 1867 and 1868.

But why brass tacks? Reitan features this nice explanation from an Ohio newspaper of 1868: “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; sham and shoddy are no longer available; deceit and pretence are below par. Brass tacks have equalized all human earthly conditions.”

In other words, brass tacks were used for coffins. Ordinary coffins, that is.

Reitan notes that Abraham Lincoln’s coffin, the one that 150 years ago made the long trip from the national capital to Springfield, Ill., had silver tacks, not brass ones. According to the Evening Star of Washington, D.C., on April 17, 1865, “The outside of the coffin is festooned with massive silver tacks, representing drapery, in each fold of which is a silver star. … A row of silver tacks encircles the entire top of  the coffin, being placed two inches from the outer edge, while a silver plate, encircled by a shield formed of tacks of the same material, occupies a central position on the top lid, with stars at the head and foot of the coffin, on the outside.”

There is much more to Reitan’s article, including a minstrel song from 1862 that is the first known use of the phrase. But to get down to brass tacks, the explanation seems to be as simple as that.

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