Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wait 'til Next Year - a Painful History of Sport's Perennial Losers' Sad Refrain

Wait ‘til Next Year – 
a Painful History of a Sport’s Perennial Losers' Sad Refrain

July, by Grantland Rice

Hope Springs eternal in the baseball breast
Until July,
When in six towns, hurled backward from the crest,
Passes by;
And, stilled at last beyond the pennant gate,
The ringing cheer
Fades to a curse – and then the cry: “Just wait
Until next year.”

Grantland Rice, from his Bingles and Bungles column, The Washington Times (Washington DC), June 29, 1914, Home Edition, page 11.

From “da Bums” (Brooklyn Dodgers) to the “Loveable Losers” (Chicago Cubs), the phrase, “Wait’ll next year” - the hopeful song of sports’ perennial losers - has long buoyed the spirits of optimistic baseball fans through one hot-stove league after another.  

For many years (from as early as 1938), “wait until next year” was closely associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  A documentary film, entitled “Wait ‘til Next Year: The Saga of the Chicago Cubs,” chronicled the sad history of the long-suffering Cubbies.  In professional football, a Cleveland Browns’ fan writes a blog under the heading, Wait ‘til Next Year, Again.

But as Barry Popik pointed out, the “phrase pre-dates the [Dodgers' original] nickname “Trolley Dodgers” [(1895)] and was not original to Brooklyn.”

The Phillies

In 1916, the year after Philadelphia Phillies won their first National League pennant, following thirty years of futility, Philly fanatics put their worries behind them:

 “Wait Until Next Year” is a forgotten slogan in Philly. Fans will not have to “Pull” the Wait-Until-Next-Year “Stuff” of the Last Three Decades.

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), April 1 1916, page 14.

The Washington Senators

In the American League, it was the long-suffering Washington Senators for whom hope eternally sprung.  In 1915, however, things were looking up after they had finished near the top for two consecutive seasons:

It’s the same old song – “wait ‘till next year” – but the fans along the Potomac are joining in stronger on the chorus than they used to. 

The Tacoma Times (Washington), March 4, 1915, page 32.

The Senators, a charter member of the American League, which started play in 1901, had been bottom dwellers for years.  In 1909, when firing their old manager was a distinct possibility, and the search was on for a new one, one writer saw reason for hope:

It is not within the range of possibility that a Connie Mack or a Hughey Jennings will be found for the emergency, but there is hope that the “wait until next year” will not again prove so meaningless and disappointing.

The Washington Herald (DC), August 3, 1909, page 8. 

But, sadly, 1909 was not the first year they had had problems:

Far be it from a writer in these columns to ask long-suffering fandom to wait until next year.  This hoary saying, repeated, reiterated, and re-echoed, carries with it little consolation to those who have watched and waited in vain for the opportunity to cheer a winning team.  They have been reassured in the past only to be disappointed.

The Washington Times (DC), August 15, 1909, page 10.  

The Senators’ problems were even older than the team.  In 1894, an earlier incarnation of the Senators, playing in the National League, addressed a familiar problem; they were looking for another new manager after another disastrous season; – but at least the outgoing manager deserved praise (however faint) for lifting them out of the cellar and into eleventh place:

After the Senators have gotten through their present series in Louisville they go to Cleveland, from there to Chicago, and wind up the season at St. Louis.  They are assured of eleventh place, not so much through any particularly brilliant playing of their own, but chiefly owing to Louisville’s disorganized team and its consequent poor work.  As usual whenever the local aggregation fails to win games with startling frequency rumors are set afloat that a change in managers will take place.  One close follower of the fortunes of the Washington Club is confident Manager Schmelz will not succeed himself.  While the genial Gus has not always come up to expectations he has been fortunate in getting the team out of last place and for this, if for nothing else, he is deserving of praise.  But there will be no grand outpouring of enthusiastic citizens to welcome the team back to this city, as will be the case forty miles from here, and the chances are the Senators will disband in the West.  ”Wait until next year,” will soon be heard emanating from the Wagnerian stronghold.

The Washington Times (DC), September 17, 1894, Page 4.

Other Uses
The use of the phrase, “wait ‘til next year,” has not always been confined to Major League baseball.  The earliest example in baseball that I found is from minor league, intra-state trash-talking in Nebraska; Lincoln lorded it over Omaha, because they had a baseball team and Omaha had none:

Lincoln, Neb., July 11. – To the Sporting Editor of The Bee: How is this? We are creditably informed that Omaha is no longer in it.  Poor old Omaha.  I believe you told me early in the season that Lincoln would not be in it long.  Poor old Omaha.  I’m sorry for you folks.  Population 154,563 and no ball team.  Lincoln’s population 54,000 and great ball team. Yours, R. S. McI.

Well, Mac, as Jack Morrison says, it is a Mexican stand off.  But just you wait until next year. – Sport Ed.

Omaha Daily Bee, July 19, 1891, part 2, page 12.

The earliest sporting use of the phrase I ran across is from 1884.  Sixteen-year-old, live-pigeon shooting “Boy Wonder,” H. B. Whitney, promised, “[j]ust wait until next year, and I’ll show ‘em.!” Curiously, though, he said it after winning the “Pierce diamond badge, worth $850,” at the New York State pigeon shoot at Buffalo.[i]  He won the badge, after shooting fifteen-of-fifteen live pigeons at a distance of twenty-one yards, and then five-of-five in a three-way tie-breaker at a distance of twenty-four yards, and five-of-five at a distance of thirty-one yards.  Perhaps he was predicting an even more dominant live-pigeon-shooting season the following year.  That's right, he shot twenty-five live pigeons by himself in one match - of hundreds of matches - held during the event.  One event of many during a long season.  It was a different time.

The phrase also popped up, on occasion, in other sports; such as, cycling,[ii] rowing (Penn hoped for a better result against Cornell in 1903),[iii] golf (consoling the women who missed the cut for the 1902 National Championship), and football (the Utah State Aggies hoped for a better result in 1905, after losing  to the University of Utah in 1904).[iv]

Final Post of the Year

This is my final post for the year, 2014 . . . 

. . . just wait’ll next year.

[i] The New York Times, September 6, 1884.
[ii] The Greenville Times (Greenville, Mississippi), October 6, 1897, page 4 (Wisconsin cyclists must still pay for their wheels on railroad journeys.  They are saying: “Wait until next year!”)
[iii] The St. Louis Republic, June 29, 1902, Part III, page 5.
[iv] The Salt Lake Herald, November 21, 1904, last edition, page 7.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Brass Tacks III – Historical and Archaeological Evidence of Widespread Use of Brass Tacks on Coffins over a Long Period of Time

Brass Tacks III – Historical and Archaeological Evidence of Widespread Use of Brass Tacks on Coffins over  a Long Period of Time

The idiom, “get down to brass tacks,” dates to at least 1863.  No one has been able to establish, with any certainty, the underlying meaning or origin of the phrase.  Candidates include counter tacks, used to measure out the length of fabric in a dress-good shop, Cockney rhyming slang for “facts,” the old practical joke of putting a tack in someone’s chair, the brass tacks on the hull of a ship, or tacks used to secure upholstery to wooden furniture.

New evidence points in a different direction.  “Getting down to brass tacks,” or “coming down to brass tacks,” as the idiom usually appeared during its early years, may refer to the brass tacks, or “coffin tacks,” that were used to decorate coffins. 

One article, from 1868, makes a direct connection between “coffin tacks” and the proverbial, “brass tacks.”  One other early reference, from 1864, is suggestive of the connection, but does not explicitely make the connection.  Standing alone, it is unclear whether the association between “coffin tacks” and “brass tacks” reflected the writer’s personal point of view, or was in line with the general understanding of others during the same period.

Historical and archaeological evidence of the widespread use of brass tacks on coffins over a long period of time, across different regions, cultures, and social strata, suggests that “brass tacks” may well have been commonly associated with undertakers, coffins, and the serious business of dying.  To “get down to brass tacks” is to get past all of the preliminaries, and deal with the serious issues; nothing is more serious than death, and “brass tacks” were evocative of death.

In 1992, archaeologists in Maryland unearthed three Colonial coffins, but did not immediately find the information they had hoped to find:

The initials or date that scientists expected to find spelled out in tacks on the inner coffin lid simply weren’t there.

Although the article is evidence that brass tacks were not always used, the fact that the scientists expected to find the tacks, indicates that even now, brass tacks are associated with early American coffins.  Perhaps people at the time could have associated "brass tacks" with death.

In 1997, a coffin, presumably that of a slave, was disinterred from the African burial ground in Manhattan.  It was decorated by 92 brass tacks, arranged in a heart-shaped design.  New York Daily News, December 7, 1997.  When the coffin was first examined, some assumed that the heart-shaped symbol was a “variation on the Western symbol for affection. Later, others came to believe that the design was a Western-African design, known as a Sankofa, which is said to mean, “look to the past to inform the future.” 

A later analysis of the debate, left the question open; but also revealed how ubiquitous “coffin tacks” were during the period:

The third problem with seeing the heart as a Sankofa symbol is that hearts made out of tacks were not uncommon on Anglo-American coffin lids.  Nathaniel Harrison, for example, who died in 1727 in Surry County, Virginia, was buried in a pine coffin elaborately decorted with brass tacks in the shape of a heart (and a skull and crossbones).  When the nineteenth-century local historian Arthur W. Dowe entered the Wainwright family tomb in Ipswich, Massachusetts, he found ten coffins in various states of disintegration.  On five coffin lids “were hearts formed with iron nails; and initials and dates with brass nails”; the dates ranged from 1731 to 1798.  More recently, when archaeologists removed thirty-four coffins from the Bulkeley family tomb in Colchester, Connecticut, twenty of them (covering the period 1775 to 1826) had lids with heart-shaped designs made out of tacks (Figure 16).  Also relevant is further evidence from Delaplaine.  The busy New York coffin maker included in his account book an order for a fancy coffin of expensive “bilsted” or sweet gum wood, almost certainly for a wealthy white individual, for whom Delaplaine had a heart with the deceased’s name, age, and date of death “struck” on the lid, presumably with tacks.  This description sounds uncannily like the design on the lid of Burial 101’s coffin, which included not only a heart but what appear to be the deceased’s initials and year of death (1769).

Erik R. Seeman, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, page 213.

A biographical sketch of the career of a coffin maker, who started making coffins in 1874, gives some insight into how tacks were used on coffins:

Brass tacks were the first materials employed for putting the name and age upon the coffin, but very soon he used the round head or gimp tacks; the first were black, then they were galvanized, and from that Mr. Burr advanced to the name plates, and afterwards to plated handles and tacks for trimmings.

The History of Ludlow, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens, Reminiscenses, Genealogies, Farm Histories, and an Account of the Centennial Celebration, June 17, 1874, Ludlow Massachusetts, Springfield Printing and Binding Company, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged, 1912, page 216.

In his paper on, The Historical Archaeology of Mortuary Behavior: Coffin Hardware from Uxbridge, Massachusetts (Historical Archaeology, 24(3):54-78), archaeologist Edward L. Bell suggests that the mass-production of easily affordable coffin hardware, and the emergence of funeral directing as a profession, made access to decorative coffins available to rich and poor, Black and White.  He cites evidence of such hardware on coffins from New England to Louisiana, and from Maryland to Oregon, to many places in between, and beyond. 

Historical Archaeology, 24(3):65 (Courtesy Ricardo J. Elia, Associate Professor of Archaeology, Boston University)


The historical and archaeological evidence of the widespread use of coffin tacks, often brass tacks, during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, suggests that it is plausible that people at the time may have understood, “brass tacks,” to be an allusion to death.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Brass Tacks, Counter Tacks, Furniture Tacks and Coffin Tacks - Nailing Down the Deathly Serious History and Etymology of "Getting Down to Brass Tacks"

Brass Tacks, Counter Tacks,
Furniture Tacks and Coffin Tacks
- Nailing Down the Deathly Serious
History and Etymology of
“Getting Down to Brass Tacks”

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in his viewing box at Ford’s Theater during a performance of “Our American Cousin.”  Within three days, Messrs. R. F. & G. &. Harvey, undertakers, designed and manufactured a decorative casket befitting the President of the United States.  The decorative use of silver tacks on Lincoln’s casket may illuminate the origins of the idiom, “getting down to brass tacks”:

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.  The outer edges of the coffin is tastefully scalloped with silver braid to which are attached five tassels of five inches each in length.

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.

The Evening  Star (Washington DC), April 17, 1865, page 2.

The idiom, “to get down to brass tacks,” pre-dates the Lincoln’s death by at least two years, so it could not have been the origin of the phrase.  But the practice of decorating coffins with “coffin tacks” may help us understand the origin of the idiom. 

Although the President’s coffin was decorated with “silver tacks,” ordinary coffins were generally decorated with “brass tacks;” and brass tacks were associated with undertakers.  An article published in 1868, five years after the earliest-known use of the idiom in print, explained the underlying meaning of the idiom, “come down to brass tacks,” as coming down to serious business – the serious business of death.

President Lincoln's Casket - decorated with silver coffin tacks

“Getting Down to Brass Tacks”

The idiom, “get down to brass tacks,” dates to at least as early as 1863.  Fred Shapiro is credited with finding the earliest-known appearance of the idiom in the January 21, 1863 edition of The Tri-Weekly Telegraph of Houston, Texas:

“When you come down to ‘brass tacks’ – if we may be allowed the expression – everybody is governed by selfishness.” 

Barry Popik found an early example in the Daily Whig & Courier of Bangor Maine, from January 12, 1867[i]:

The Galveston Bulletin says that Texas must ‘come down to brass tacks’ and accept the constitutional amendment, unless the people wish Congress to proceed with reconstruction. 

Many of the other early attestations of the idiom also come from Texas, or refer to Texas, suggesting that the phrase may have been coined in Texas[ii]:

The Houston Telegraph sensibly advised the people of Texas to till the soil . . . . The sooner we all come down to ‘brass tacks’ on this subject the better.

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, West Virginia), May 20, 1867, page 1.

To use the homely phrase, and come down to “brass tacks,” the issue fought in the late elections was well recognized and clearly defined.

Dallas (Texas) Herald, November 2, 1867, page 1.

There are also some ranters who are capable of better things, and I hope hard times will bring them down to “brass tacks,” and give them a chance to take a new shute. 

Dallas (Texas) Herald, January 11, 1868.

But not all of the early examples are from Texas.  The idiom also appeared in Montana, in slightly altered form, in 1865:

I find, in looking over the columns of the Post, that every district, whether it be a gulch mining district or a lode mining district, in the Territory, is spoken of in your paper as being a “big thing.”  Well, this is all very fine to talk about; but to come down to BRASS HATS, and tell you my honest opinion, I don’t believe there is a richer lead mining district in this Territory, or any other Territory, than the Ram’s Horn district.

The Montana Post (Virginia City, Montana), July 29, 1865, page 2.

This single, “Brass Hat” reference seems to be an anomaly.  Perhaps it was intentional mutation of a known expression, or a mistake by the anonymous letter writer, type-setter or editor, any one of whom could have misheard or misunderstood the expression, which seems to have been fairly new at the time.  In any case, it is the only such version that I could find. 

A similar expression appears in the cryptic lyrics of a so-called “minstrel” song that was published in 1864, but which may be older*:

Come, Down Wid De Brass Tacks!        
Ethiopian Song and Dance.
As sung by Frank Brower.

Ole massa was de best of men –
A little fractious now an’den,
  But we all keep clear
  Wid de fear,
An’ we fool him bad when we can.

Ho, rod a maringo,
Fotch on de stingo,
    Up sky high;
Buzzard fly high up in de dinktums!
    High-low Jack
    Beats de pack,
Down wid de pewter inktums!
    Ho, rod a maringo,
    Fotch on de stingo,
And den come down wid de brass tacks!

Frank Brower’s Black Diamond Songster, page 21, included within, The Universal Book of Songs and Singer’s Companion, New York, Dick & Fitzgerald, 1864. [iii]  

*[Update:  The same song, under a different title (High, Low, Jack), appeared in a collection of so-called “minstrel” songs, published in 1862. See, Billy Birch's Ethiopian Melodist, New York, Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862, page 33.  The line, “come down wid de brass tacks,” therefore antedates the earliest known attestation of the idiom, “get down (or come down) to brass tacks.”]

The Meaning of “Brass Tacks”

Although each of the early references illustrate the figurative meaning of the phrase (with the possible exception of “Come Down Wid De Brass Tacks!”), none of them gets down to brass tacks of explaining the underlying, literal meaning of “brass tacks.”  A century-and-a-half of speculation has not made much progress.

One popular folk-etymology holds that “brass tacks” is the Cockney rhyming expression for “facts.”  This explanation suffers from being British, when all of the early evidence suggests an American origin.  In addition, no one can point to any pre-1863 evidence to support the theory.

Other explanations include “cleaning the hull of a wooden ship, scraping off weed and barnacles until the bolts that held its hull together (the brass tacks of the expression) were exposed,” the “schoolboy prank of putting tacks on chair seats to puncture the pride of the unwary” and brass tacks used to secure upholstery to furniture.[iv]

Michael Quinion dismisses the ship-cleaning story, because “the expression has no known connection with the sea and hull fastenings were always of copper, not brass.”[v]  It is difficult to completely rule out the old practical joke of putting tacks in someone’s chair, but the results of my searches on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper archive suggest that the idiom may be of slightly older vintage than the joke.  I could not find any such joke from before 1873, but I could find dozens of such jokes in 1874 and shortly thereafter.  

New Ulm Review (Minnesota), May 24 1905, page 25.

One of the earliest tack-in-chair references is a limerick from 1874:

There was a young woman named Hannah, who behaved in a frivolous manner; while her pa stood in prayer, she put tacks in his chair, which he sat on, and cussed his Hannah.

National Republican, October 8, 1874, page 4, column 1.

Ottawa Free Trader (Illinois), March 8 1873, page 2.

The Athens Post (Tennessee), October 9 1874, page 4.

Michael Quinion preferred a different explanation; one that has been around since at least the 1930s:

“Getting down to brass tacks.” Is said to have originated in the country store.  Tack-heads studded the inner margin of the counter, to mark off the yard, half-yard, and other fractions of the common unit of length.  To get down to them meant to quit guessing and go to measuring by the accepted standard.”

Albert Galloway Keller, Brass Tacks, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1938, page 3.

If true, “brass tacks” may join “the whole nine yards” as an idiom based on the measurement of fabric.  Peter Reitan has laid out a good case that the idiom, “the whole nine yards” (as well as the lesser known, “whole six yards” and “whole three yards”), may be based on the practice of selling cloth in standard lengths, measured in multiples of three yards. Peter Reitan, Origin of The Whole Three/Six/Nine Yards: The Sale of Cloth in Multiples of Threes Was Common in the 1800s and Early 1900s, in Comments on Etymology, Volume 44, Number 4, January 2015.

The counter tack suggestion is plausible.  It benefits from being based on actual facts.  Brass tacks were, in fact, used as “counter tacks” in the 1800s and early 1900s.  But even if counter tacks were the inspiration for “brass tacks” as “true facts,” they may not have been as factual as hoped for. 

In 1895, a 60-Minutes-style expos̩ on weights and measures exposed a dirty little secret Рcounter tacks were not always accurate:

“If, any one thinks that it is a waste of time to go around looking after weights and measures he ought to follow me around just one day,” said Inspector White, as he handed in his monthly reports one day last week. . . .

“I happened to drop into one of the biggest dry goods stores in the city the other day, and I happened to notice that the tacks in the counter by which dress goods were measured seemed to be unevenly distributed.  I took my yardstick and went to work, and in a quarter of an hour found that there was not a place on the whole counter where the tacks were set exactly a yard apart.”

Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), August 12, 1895, page 6, column 4.

Other cities dealt with similar issues, including Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Herald, February 9, 1907, page 7) and El Paso, Texas (El Paso Herald, June 4, 1913, page 6).   In 1911, the state of Vermont passed a new weights and measures law, providing that, “[t]he use of counter tacks in the sale of commodities is forbidden.”

Middlebury Register (Vermont), November 3 1911, page 3.

The brass tacks used to attach upholstering to furniture are another candidate for the origin of, “getting down to brass tacks.”  Gary Martin, writing on, dismisses the upholstery-tack story because, “it hardly seems to match the meaning of the expression, as the tacks would be the first thing to be removed, rather than the last.” 

I disagree with his reasoning.  If brass tacks are the first thing that you remove – then they are also the last things tacked on when the item was made, or when the repairs are finished.  It seems plausible that, “getting down to brass tacks,” could refer to getting past all of the preliminaries, and getting to the point where you deal with the brass tacks.

Brass tacks also played more than a merely functional role; they were used as ornamentation, the final, finishing touches on whatever item they adorned. 

Brass tacks were used to decorate trunks.[vi]

"Hair Trunk" - decorated with brass tacks.

North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune (Nebraska), September 8, 1911, page 7.

Brass tacks were also used to decorate velvet cushions[vii], a cow’s collar[viii], saddles, bridles, and guns.[ix]

Evening Star (Washington DC), May 7, 1856.

In Tanzania, drinking vessels, musical instruments, and smoking pipes, all fashioned from bottle gourds, were decorated with brass tacks.[x]

Richard Francis Burton, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, page 482.

American Indians decorated tomahawks,[xi] peace pipes,[xii] and cradle boards[xiii] with brass tacks.

When I first sifted through the various “brass tacks” references, it seemed likely to me that the decorative use of brass tacks could have inspired the idiom, “getting down to brass tacks.”  But as I dug further, I unearthed a few more references that pointed in a slightly different direction.

Some of the very early references suggest that the phrase may not have been a reference to a garden-variety brass tack, but to a specific type of tack, marketed for a specific, decorative purpose – “coffin tacks.”

Coffin Tacks

In the late 1890s, the terms, “coffin tacks” and “coffin nails,” were used interchangeably as a euphemism for cigarettes.

Clinch Valley News (Jeffersonville, Virginia), July 30, 1915, page 3.

The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois), August 28, 1912, page 9.

Actual “coffin tacks,” however, had long been used to decorate caskets.  Coffin tacks were a staple item offered for sale by hardware dealers, and marketed to undertakers and cabinet makers.  Sometimes, the word, “coffin” was placed in quotations, as though they were not necessarily used for coffins, but still carried the name.  Perhaps that was because they were falling out of fashion by the late 1800s:

Not long after [1856] they added the manufacture of coffin tacks and screws of white metal, then much used by undertakers, and also the common kind of coffin handles.

William F. Moore, Representative Men of Connecticut, 1861-1891, Everett, Mass., Massachusetts Publishing Company, 1894.

Ashland Union (Ashland County, Ohio), November 15, 1854, page 3.

Nashville Union and American (Tennessee), August 22, 1861.

But during the mid-1800s, coffin tacks, frequently brass tacks, were still in common use on coffins.    So much so, that at least one writer made a direct connection between the the idiom, “come down to brass tacks,” and the serious business of death:

Brass Tacks.

Bring things right down to brass tacks in all the affairs of this life and the millennium is not far away.  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.  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.  Once before – at birth – they were all equal in ignorance and helplessness.  They were not consulted then.  They have had many opportunities for good and evil since; they have strutted life’s busy hour upon Time’s stage, playing their allotted parts with more or less earnestness, in farce or tragedy, some to the pit, others to the dress circle – this one applauded, that one hissed, until, again without being consulted, death brings them all down to brass tacks.

Wyandot Pioneer (Wyandot, Ohio), May 14, 1868, page 4 (attributed to the Cincinnati Times).

The article, which repeats the phrase “bring down to brass tacks” at least nine times, goes on to lament that, “[s]hams and shoddy pervade society, and civilization is a mockery and a delusion.”  It then itemizes all of the “misunderstandings,” “bumcombe and sham,” “mock auctions, quack doctors” and “thimble-riggers of all kinds,” that make the world, as we see it in life, a delusion.  But, "death brings them all down to brass tacks,” exposing the underlying realities. 

(You can read the article in its entirety on a separate page.  It is an interesting read; another lesson in how the more things change, the more things stay the same.)

The article was written several years after the expression was coined, and in a location far removed from Texas, so  It is also difficult to judge what the person or persons who coined the expression in Texas had in mind; coffin tacks, counter tacks, practical joke tacks, or furniture tacks.  But nevertheless, the article may illustrate one way in which the idiom may have resonated with people at the time.

Although it may be impossible to judge whether people, generally, shared the writer's understanding of a connection between "coffin tacks" and "brass tacks," the historical and archaeological record of the widespread use of coffin tacks throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across all social and cultural lines, and in every corner of the country, suggest that it is certainly possible.

“Coming Down to Brass Tacks”

The notion, that brass tacks are a reference to the serious matter of death does not neatly square with our current understanding of “brass tacks.”  “Brass tacks” are generally understood to be the basic facts or realities, the heart of the matter, the important things.  “Getting” down to “brass tacks” is getting down to, and dealing with, the important facts.   But the early attestations of the idiom are formulated differently; instead of “getting” down to brass tacks, they refer to “coming down” or “bringing someone down” to brass tacks.  This raises the question, how did people in the mid-nineteenth century understand the expression, “coming down to brass tacks”?

An article written in Louisiana (not far from “brass tacks” ground-zero, in Texas), in 1875, suggests that people at the time may have understood the idiom to be equivalent to the expression, “badinage apart.” 

But coming “down to brass tacks,” as they say in Texas, or in politer phrase, badinage apart, it is a mercy for us colored citizens of the United States, peeled and otherwise outraged as we still are, that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.

The Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans), May 15, 1875, page 1.

“Badinage” is playful repartee, and “badinage apart” or “badinage aside” (common expressions at the time) mean something akin to, “all kidding aside” or “in all seriousness”:[xiv]  If this explanation reflects the common understanding of “come down to brass tacks” at the time, then “brass tacks” as “coffin tacks” may not be such a stretch; what is more serious than death?  If life and all of its trappings are merely delusions or shams, then the leveling power of death, and the brass tacks that announce death, bring us all “down to brass tacks.”  All kidding aside, this seriously makes sense.

Although the “Brass Tacks” article is the only piece of direct evidence that I found expressly linking coffin tacks and death to the idiom, one of the earliest attestations of the idiom (or something like the idiom) points to supporting circumstantial, corroborating evidence. 

“Come on Down, Wid de Brass Tacks”

The song, “Come On Down Wid De Brass Tacks,” published in 1864, is presented in a section of the Universal Songster entitled, Frank Brower’s Black Diamond Songster.  A note below the title of the song indicates that the song was, “sung by Frank Bower.”

Frank Brower was a well-known “minstrel” performer, who had a long, successful career performing in black-face, and affecting a stereotypical “Negro” dialect and accent.  During the 1860s, he had long engagements in both Washington DC and Philadelphia, in which he portrayed the main character, Ginger Blue, in a stock “minstrel” farce, The Virginia Mummy.

The Daily Exchange (Baltimore Maryland), April 5, 1860, page 3.

Evening Star (Washington DC), December 24, 1861, page 3.

The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia), March 21, 1867, page 3.

The play, The Virginia Mummy, had been around since at least 1841.  T. D. Rice, who also originated the character, “Jim Crow,” wrote the The Virginia Mummy, and performed the play at least as early as 1841:

On Wednesday Mr. Rice played, - the first night of his farewell engagement, and appeared in Ginger Blue, in the extravaganza of the Sarcophagos; or the Virginia Mummy; and Bone Squash, in the whimsical opera so called. 

Dramatic Mirror and Literary Companion, Volume 1, Number 17, page 135.

A version of the play, believed to have been published in the 1860s, includes the same general plot points.  The main character, Ginger Blue, spends much of the play in an ornately decorated sarcophagus, pretending to be a reanimated Egyptian mummy.[xv]  The sarcophagus, or coffin, appears to have been a memorable part of the show, as several references to the play, from articles that are not about the play, itself, mention the coffin:

If we are to judge by what we see, Death – once known as the grim tyrant, the cruel enemy of our peace, the invader of households – is the Merry-Andrew of the scene; the director of Public Amusements.  It is he who . . . contrives new coffins of a patent convenience (like Mr. Rice in the Virginia Mummy), as a rare sport to get into . . . .

The Literary World, Volume 7, 1850, page 497.

Did you or any of you ever see old Burton in the farce of the Virginia Mummy, where, being hired to enact the part of mummy, he trots out of his case when the company’s back is turned, steals part of a chicken and commences devouring it, at the same time demanding of his neighbor in the next mummy case, how much he gets for being a mummy.

Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, North Carolina), April 18, 1856, page 2, column 1.

A song entitled, “Come Down Wid De Brass Tacks,” was “sung by Frank Brower” in the early 1860s; Frank Brower famously performed the role of a fake mummy in a decorated coffin during the 1860s; the expression, “come down to brass tacks” first shows its face in the 1860s; a writer during the 1860s draws a connection between and among “brass tacks,” coffin tacks, death, and the new idiom, “come down to brass tacks.”

Just coincidence?

You be the judge.

It is not a slam-dunk, but I find it interesting.

Deciphering the cryptic lyrics of Come Down Wid De Brass Tacks makes the song even more in line with the “Brass Tacks” article.  The three verses of the song tell of being afraid of the master, but fooling him; getting a day off and scaring the Missus away with the commotion; and drinking Apple-Jack, and risking being drawn into “blue ruin” (alcoholism). 

The chorus uses several words that may seem cryptic today; “maringo,” “fotch,” stingo,” “dinktum,” and “pewter inktums.”  But each one of those words and phrases had a specific meaning that audiences at the time may have understood.

Maringo is a Swahili word; defined variously as, affectation, coquetry, swagger, arrogance, boasting, tale-bearing, or airs.  Each of those possible meanings is consistent with the theme them of the “Brass Tacks” article, that everything in life is a false front.  The false fronts are all removed when you, “come down to brass tacks.”  

The word “fotch” appears in numerous “Negro dialect” writings of the era.  It appears to have been the standard, phonetic rendering of the word “fetch,” as spoken in the presumed accent of Southern Blacks at the time. 

Dinktum appears in a number of publications from the period as rhyming gibberish.  But a word list, collected from students at the University of Nebraska in about 1911, defines “dinktum,” and sheds light on the meaning of the expression, “pewter inktums.”  The list defines “dinktum” as an “[i]ndefinite expression, like thingumbob, or dingus.  ‘The man is not worth a pewter dinktum.’” Dialect Notes, Volume 3, Number 7, 1911, page 542.  This phrase may also align with the themes of the “Brass Tacks” article.  Pewter is a low-grade metal that can be used as a cheap imitation of higher-grade items.  A pewter inktum may represent another shoddy sham, a cheap imitation of a real, silver inktum.

Stingo is a British term for strong ale or beer.

Taken together, translating the cryptic, 1860s lyrics into something that a modern audience might understand, the first verse and chorus may go something like this:

The old master was the best of men, but a little fractious now and then.  We all keep clear with fear, and fool him badly when we can.

Ho, rod put on your swagger; fetch some strong ale.  Up sky high, the Buzzard flies high in the thing-um-a-bob!  Down with worthless people or cheap imitations.  Ho, rod get your swagger on, get some strong ale, and then come down with the brass tacks.

But many questions still remain.  Is the buzzard circling, ready to collect the person – the master(?) – who is drinking himself into an early grave?  Is the buzzard coming down with the brass tacks, to finish the job?

An historical account of one so-called “master,” in his own brass-tacked box, further illustrates how brass tacks were used on coffins:

There came, then, a long, narrow, black box, thickly embossed with shining brass tacks, in which my old master was carefully laid, with his pale, brawny hands crossed upon his wide chest.

Martha Griffith Browne, Autobiography of a Female Slave, New York, Redfield, 1857, page 11.

Getting Down to “Brass Tacks”

Early evidence of the meaning and origin of the idiom, “get down to brass tacks,” suggests that the early version of the idiom, “come down to brass tacks,” may have had a slightly different meaning from the current understanding of  the modern form of the idiom, “get down to brass tacks.”  To “come down to brass tacks” may have been understood as meaning, “in all seriousness.”  At least one writer expressly made the connection between “brass tacks,” coffin tacks, and the new idiom, and evidence of the widespread use of coffin tacks suggests that the people who coined the expression could have had the same imagery in mind.

The song, “Come Down Wid De Brass Tacks,” and the singer who sang the song, may also connect coffin tacks with the proverbial “brass tacks.”  If the song relates to the idiom, it is unclear whether the song or the idiom came first.  Was the song based on the idiom?  Was the idiom derived from the song?  Did the song and the idiom merely reflect a commonly-held association between brass tacks and death?  Was the expression coined by a white minstrel show songwriter? – or copied from an expression used among African-Americans. 

Although the song was published after the earliest attestations of the new idiom, it is unclear whether the song predates the earliest attestation.  Frank Brower, who sang “Come Down Wid De Brass Tacks,” appeared in the role of Ginger Blue in The Virginia Mummy (a play that prominently features a decorated coffin) for an extended run in Washington DC during the winter of 1861-1862. 

President Lincoln, a famous, and ill-fated, theater-lover, may well have heard the song there.  Perhaps, if the performers could have foreseen Lincoln’s fate, they might have changed the lyrics to “come on down wid de silber tacks.”

Lincoln’s assasination brought the President down to silver tacks, and the entire country “down to brass tacks;” if it hadn't already been brought down to brass tacks by the war.

Nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers are believed to have died during the Civil War (New York Times, April 2, 2012); that's a lot of brass tacks.

The Xenia Sentinel (Ohio), May 5, 1865, page 3.

[i] The same item also appeared in, The Sunbury American (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), January 12, 1867, page 2.
[ii] See also, Michael Quinion, Brass Tacks,
[iii] The scan that I accessed online has three possible dates:  The page following the title page states that the book was, “[e]ntered according to Act of Congress in the year 1864, by Dick & Fitzgerald, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court for the Southern District of New York”; a handwritten note on the title page lists the date, March 3, 1864; a blue ink-stamp reads, “Library of Congress * City of Washington - 1871” (but with no specific date, so it does not seem to be the date of receipt, which is usually shown with a specific date-stamp).  Some of the songs in the book seem to relate to political events before the end of the Civil War, so the 1864 date may be accurate. 
[iv] See, for example, Michael Quinion, Brass Tacks,; Get Down to Brass Tacks,
[v] Michael Quinion, Brass Tacks,
[vi] The New Mirror, Volume 3, 1844, page 154 (“Three hair-trunks, with letters in brass tacks, a bandbox, and a bushel with a white linen napkin bound over . . . .”); Dayton Daily Empire (Dayton, Ohio), July 24, 1860, page 3 ((punch-line to a joke) “[The Elephant] is a large one, and we heard a little urchin on the sidewalk say that he has his name on his trunk in ‘brass tacks!’”); Lydia M. Millard, Nepenth, New York, Carleton, 1864, page 263 (“[S]he saw at once . . . the trunk in the corner, with the initials, ‘N. S.’ in brass tacks . . . .”).
[vii] Ik Marvel, Dream Life; a Fable of the Seasons, New York, C. Scribner, 1851, page 96 (“The parson is a stout man, remarkable in your opinion, chiefly, for a yellowish-brown wig, a strong nasal tone, and occasional violent thumps upon the little, dingy, red velvet cushion, studded with brass tacks, at the top of the desk.”).
[viii] The Evening Star (Washington DC), May 7, 1856, page 2 ($5 Reward - . . . a small red COW, with short horns.  She had a heavy leather collar on when she left, with the initials “W F B” stuck in with brass tacks.).
[ix] Washington Irving, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Volume 1, page 142 (“His gun is lavishly decorated with brass tacks and vermilion, and provided with a fringed cover, occasionally of buckskin, ornamented here and there with a feather.”)
[x] Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, page 483 (A discussion about how the locals at Ujiji, Tanzania, make drinking vessels, musical instruments, and pipes from bottle gourds, and “ornament it by tattooing with dark paint, and by patterns worked in brass tacks and wires . . . .”).
[xi] Report of Lieut. J. W. Abert, of his Examination of New Mexico in the Years 1846-’47, from Report of the Secretary of War, communicating, in answer to a resolution of the Senate, a report and map of the examination of New Mexico, Washington, 1848, page [23] (“[Ah-ma-nah-co] pointed out his armlets of brass, and bracelets of brass, and the broad masses of beads that garnished his leggings and his tomahawk, with its helve studded with brass tacks, and the long queue eked out with braided horse hair.”).
[xii] The Sun (New York), September 25, 1867, page 2 (Whenever this calumet is brought forth, it is a token of great respect, adorned as it is with brass tacks, blue and golden feathers, beads of coral, and carved in the most unique manner.
[xiii] The Weekly Portage Sentinel, April 15, 1858, page 2 (This board had hoops protruding from either side of its upper surface, was beautifully ornamented with brass tacks, and is an ancient hair loom upon which the infantile members of the royal family of the Otoe nation have been strapped for fourteen centuries..).
[xiv] “Badinage” means playful repartee.  During the mid-1800s, “badinage apart” and “badinage aside,” were both common expressions.  See, for example: Lewis F. Allen, Address Delivered Before the New-York State Agricultural Society, Albany, New York, Parsons & Co., 1849, page 20 (But badinage apart; this is a subject of serious, of momentous consequence, not only to us, but to the State at large); and  The Harvard Lampoon, Series 2, Volume 3, Number 2, March 9, 1882, page 13 (“Badinage aside,” said Lampy, with his usual solemnity, “this Cooper-ative Society will entail great hardship on the Pocos and others of their ilk who are endeavoring to extract an honest (?) penny from gullible students.).
[xv] The Virginia Mummy, A Negro Farce (Arranged by C. White), Lebanon, Ohio, March Brothers, undated (the catalog record lists a date of, 186-?).