Getting Down to Brass Tacks “In The ‘Ville”
Have you ever heard that saying “Let’s get down to brass tacks,” or perhaps some version of it? Have you ever wondered where it comes from? Its genesis is in Colorado’s pioneer days, and there’s proof of that on the floors of old mining towns like Leadville.
By the mid-1880s, Leadville’s Harrison Avenue was a active hub of commerce. Shoppers could find everything from a pound of flour to a pound of nails, on the historic thoroughfare. Shipments were brought in daily and shelves restocked at a spitfire pace, as Leadville’s population boomed to more than 30,000 residents.
As for the growing number of citizens, a majority still lived up in the East Side Mining District, close to their claims, working the rich silver ore from the ground. Eventually they did have to venture into town to replenish supplies and it’s here that the brass tacks come into focus.
One of the most popular mercantile of the day was the Western Hardware store, which still stands tall on the corner of 5th and Harrison. Walking into the place is like stepping back in time: beautifully aged, floor to ceiling wood shelves, with tiny compartment boxes which hold a multitude of small screws and other gadgets needed for comfort and survival. And what kid – or kid-at-heart – doesn’t see that sliding ladder, towering against the wall, and doesn’t want to take a spin on it?
During Leadville’s early years, miners, trappers and hunters would also catch up on the latest town news and gossip while they were stocking up on supplies. Whether it was who just arrived in town or who shot whom at the local saloon, the mercantile often provided a recount of local happenings before they hit the newspapers.
But once the general niceties and information exchange was over, it was time to get down to business, time to “get down to brass tacks.” It’s here that Western Hardware reveals this unique aspect of Leadville heritage better than most. The next time you’re in Western Hardware, go to the very back of that long counter, towards the rear of the store, and look down. You’ll see a series of brass tacks nailed into the floor.
These faded, but still precisely distanced fasteners, were more important to yesterday’s commerce than today’s scan gun. The series of brass nails, set a certain distance apart, allowed for a precise measurement of rope, leather strips and canvass. The most basic essentials were brought down to the floor by the merchant, who carefully measured out the goods between the tacks: one foot, two, three feet of twine!
That’s right brass tacks were used as a measuring device for selling any number of fundamentals in the old haberdashery trades. After all, measuring fabric by arm length wasn’t very exact. So looking for a more accurate method of length, shopkeepers inserted brass tacks along the edge of their counters, or on the floor, as the case is at Western Hardware. When a customer purchased fabric, the frock was measured, using the distance between the nails to determine the price, hence the phrase “Let’s get down to brass tacks.”
Leadville has a fascinating history and this is just one more story to add to the treasure trove. Today, the phrase is rarely used, although it’s concept of getting down to business is more relevant than ever. In fact, some folks, particularly in more urban settings, seem interested in only getting down to the brass tacks of business, and not so concerned with the person or place they are conducting that transaction.
Fortunately, Leadville still has a “brass tacks” approach to business, where niceties and cordiality are expected to be exchanged before moving forward to the business of the day. Something to think about next time you’re waiting in line at the grocery store or post office; smile, be nice and patiently wait your turn to “get down to brass tacks!”
It’s just one more reason to be glad that you’re living In The ‘Ville.