The article below appeared in the Wyandott Pioneer (Wyandott, Ohio) on May 14, 1868. The article may provide an insight into the underlying meaning of the idiom, "getting down to brass tacks."
The earliest known appearance of the idiom in print is from 1863, so the idiom was still fairly new when the article was published. Although we cannot determine, with any certainty, whether the writer's views on the meaning of "brass tacks" reflects everyone's understanding of the idiom at the time, or, for that matter, what the person or persons who coined the expression were thinking, the article at least sheds some light onto how some people may have understood the expression, or at least one way in which it resonated with people of the period.
As presented in the article, to be "brought down to brass tacks," is to have death strip away all of the artifice of life, exposing the true, underlying reality. To get down to "brass tacks," therefore, is to get serious - like the serious business of death.
|Frothingham & Workman (Montreal) Price List, page 24 - 1872|
(For a more in-depth treatment of the history and etymology of the idiom, please visit my other post, Brass Tacks, Counter Tacks, Furniture Tacks, and Coffin Tacks - a Deathly Serious History and Etymology of the Idiom, "Getting Down to 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.
We begin, in fact, to doubt the reality of everything this side of brass tacks. Shams and shoddy pervade society, and civilization is a mockery and a delusion. “I am a Christian,” says one. Ah! bring it down to brass tacks – which of sixty oppugnant and wrangling sects do you fight for? Oh, Catholic, eh – the Latin branch or its irreconcilable enemy, the Greek Church?
The whole world is full of misunderstandings. People do not define things by their right names, and are always in mischief and trouble. Language is employed to conceal thought. One’s face is intended to hide character; no one is what he sems. “Turn to the right!” said a man on one side of a river to another man on the opposite side who had inquired the way to the ford. The querest obeyed, and was drowned. “Good gracious! I meant my right, not his; how unfortunate!” Just so through every phase of life – we misname things. We don’t bring them down to brass tacks. Nothing is what it appears to be on the face of it. All is buncombe and sham, from mock auctions, quack doctors, sensation preachers, acrobat politicians to thimble-riggers of all kinds. We used to bet freely and confidently on human nature, civilization, progress, pretty girls, our preacher and our doctor; but we don’t any more.
The ladies, resplendent in silks and diamonds glowing with the roses of youth, graceful in form, teeth of pearl, eyes of light, hair falling like golden fleece over billowy shoulders of snow. Alas! Matrimony brings them down to brass tacks, Kalosina, cotton, India-rubber, saw-dust, crinoline, false hair, plumpers, calves, palpitators, &c., dispel the illusion.
Humbug has come to be one of the polite arts. Quackery is a science. Swill milk and poison whisky are popular lies. Wooden oats tin side saddles, wax buttons, paper collars, glued boots, only illustrate how the world is given to lying.
When the Indian, in pursuit of his enemy, seized him by the hair just as he had plunged into the river and the wig came off, the red gentleman very naturally exclaimed in a tone of indignant disgust, as he held up the tonsorial chef d’oeuvre, “d—n lie.”
Nearly every thing is a whopper. We get nothing that we pay for now-a days. We scarecely know what we eat and drink any more than if we lived at a Chinese hotel. The horses pass the bologna-sausage dealers with reproachful looks, and in the ‘sassenger’ season one is almost ashamed to look a well-bred dog in the face.
We saw a few days ago, several casks of terra alba, which, being interpreted, means white clay. Upon inquireing what it was to be used for, we learned to make cream of tartar and sugar ornaments. Our coffee is rye and chickory, sugar is sand, flour plaster of Paris, pepper and allspice black walnut sawdust, oak bark for cinnamon, corn meal for mustard and ginger, blue clay for blue pill, and so on with everything. As to the liquors we imbibe, no language can do justice to the subject. It involves, besides, several great moral questions, a treatise upon poisons and man’s wonderful powers to endure. Bring everything right down to brass tacks, and what becomes of all our pretentious progress? The doctor who has himself called out of half a dozen churches every Sunday morning is like unto the wig – and the best of them when brought face to face with disease and death, and peremptorily required to exhibit their boasted knowledge, are brought down to brass tacks, and must own their helpless ignorance.
The evangelical and model minister, whose creed involves infant damnation, election, resurrection of the material body and triple Demity, when brought down to Brass Tacks, disbelieves it all – or, what is the same thing, doubts. The lawyer to rushes to and fr from court with a huge green bg filled with old newspapers, is another wig case.
Politicians, before whose mercenary achievements the famous Esau case of barter and sale of franchises dwindles into mediocrity – a constable’s office buys their hope in this world, and a postoffice their chance of salvation hereafter. When city councils and legislatures require the services of lobby members; when Senators are bought and sold in the market, and have values, discounts and fluctuations on Wall street, like any other property; and impeachment is subject to local politics and private interests – things had better be brought down to brass tacks.
Let us unite in—sighs for the good old days of good neighbors: quiltin’s, and corn huskin’s, apple jack, and spring-water. –Cin. Times.