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.

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