The phrase get down to brass tacks is of uncertain etymology. No one knows why it was originally coined, but there are several explanations. What we do know is that the phrase dates to at least the 1860s and that it is American, possibly Texas to be specific, in origin. Beyond that, there is only speculation.
The earliest known citations are from newspapers, the first being from the Houston, Texas Tri-Weekly Telegraph of 21 January 1863:
When you come down to “brass tacks"—if we may be allowed the expression—everybody is governed by selfishness.1
Another early published use is from the Bangor, Maine Daily Whig & Courier of 12 January 1867:
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.1
It is commonly asserted that brass tacks is Cockney rhyming slang for facts. It definitely is not British in origin, but it could be rhyming slang other than Cockney.3 This, however, is complicated by the variant brass nails, which dates to at least 1911.4 The variant doesn’t fit the rhyming slang, but then it may have been an alteration by someone who didn’t understand the rhyming slang. In any case, the rhyming slang explanation doesn’t appear until the middle of the 20th century and may be an after-the-fact attempt to make sense of the phrase.
Another explanation is that stores used to mark out a yard on the counter with brass tacks so that customers buying cloth could measure it by getting down to brass tacks and ensure they weren’t being cheated.
Yet another is that brass tacks were used as a foundation for upholstery. So getting down to brass tacks meant getting down to basics.
1Fred Shapiro, “Down to Brass Tacks (1867),” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 7 Nov 2006.
2Benjamin Zimmer, “Down to Brass Tacks (1867),” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 7 Nov 2006.
3New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, v. I & II, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006), 257.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton