We all know that black and gold are the colors associated with Pittsburgh. But did you know that it’s William Pitt himself–the city’s namesake–who gave those colors to the city? It all goes back to the city’s charter and the creation of the city’s official seal.
In 1816, Pittsburgh was chartered as a city, and creating a city seal was a priority. The city fathers turned to William Pitt and his coat of arms for ideas for Pittsburgh’s seal. William Pitt the Elder, was also known as the Earl of Chatham, served as Great Britain’s secretary of state during the Seven Year’s War and eventually became one of Britain’s most revered Prime Ministers.
After British General Johns Forbes routed the French at Fort Duquesne, he renamed the fort in honor of William Pitt on November 27, 1758. Pitt was a great military strategist as secretary of state and was instrumental in Britain’s victory over the French. Although Pitt remained loyal to the crown during the run-up to the Revolutionary War, he was quite sympathetic to the American colonists’ plight and often tried to get Parliament to address their grievances. This earned him the reputation as being fair and just on this side of the Atlantic.
According to the City of Pittsburgh website, the original drafts for creating the city seal were lost in the Great Pittsburgh Fire of 1845, but a man named Mr. Jones was engaged to recreate the seal based on the memories of those who remembered seeing the original one.
In the center of the city’s seal are three gold coins on a black shield. According to a museum educator at the Fort Pitt Museum, the use of three gold coins, which symbolized honesty, goes back to Byzantine times and were known as “bezants.” Like a game of telephone when a word gets mangled as it is passed on, those creating the city seal in 1816 thought they were called “pheasants.” They also thought pheasants were too common to be on the seal, so they inscribed on each of the coins an image of an American eagle.
In the center of the shield is a blue and white checkerboard and that harkens back to William Pitt’s family livery colors of blue and white, which he wore in Parliament. The checkerboard signifies a cloth where coins would be placed and represents finance and commerce. Topping the shield is a castle, which signifies a city. The seal is ringed with a band of gold and the black letters that read: The Seal of the City of Pittsburgh 1816, and the Latin words Benigno Numine which mean “By Divine Providence.”
For those who speak the language of heraldry, looking at the city’s seal, it would be interpreted as “The City of Pitt in America.”
The abundance of black and gold in Pitt’s coat of arms gave us the colors that adorn all our professional sports teams—The Steelers, The Pirates, and The Penguins. Pittsburgh is the only city in America to have all its pro teams sport the same colors.
It’s a good thing that black and gold dominated Pitt’s coat of arms. Otherwise, the designers of the city’s seal may have gone with his blue and white livery colors, making our city’s colors rather commonplace.
By Janice Lane Palko