What’s in a name? Well, if it’s our Pittsburgh, then it’s an ‘h’. Of the many other Pittsburgs in the USA, including some 20 towns in New Hampshire, Maine, Illinois, Kansas, California, and Texas, all spell their name without the ending ‘h.’
‘The Artist formerly Known as Prince’ wasn’t the only one whose name has caused confusion. While residents are well aware that the city spells its name with the unusual ending, others may not. Most citizens with a Pittsburgh mailing address have at one time or another received a piece of mail with the city’s name spelled incorrectly. It looks so peculiar, as if it is only half dressed.
Named for William Pitt
The official spelling of the city has always been ‘Pittsburgh.’ In 1758 when the British captured Fort Duquesne from the French, they established their own settlement, naming it Fort Pitt after England’s Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt. General Forbes sent a letter to Pitt informing him of the honor they bestowed on him, and the dateline indicated the missive was written on November 27, 1758, and posted from Pittsbourgh.
Bourgh is a variant of the word borough, meaning a fortified town, and burgh is a Scottish variant of the same name. For instance one might think that Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, should be pronounced ‘Ed-in-burg,’ but actually it is ‘Ed-in-boro.’ Forbes was a Scot, as were many of his men. So it follows that he would dub the city with a Scottish spelling of the name.
Documents throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s refer to the area as the ‘Manor of Pittsburgh,’ the ‘Town of Pittsburgh’ or the ‘Borough of Pittsburgh.’ The ‘h’ is firmly intact in all referrals.
As the old song says, ‘Little Things Mean a Lot,’ that is certainly true when it comes to the correct spelling of Pittsburgh. Why the confusion? It stems from a controversy that occurred 200 years ago when the ‘h’ was nixed. When Pittsburgh was being incorporated as a city in 1816, a printer’s error dropped the ‘h’ from the end, even though the original city charter included it. Throughout the rest of the 1800s ‘Pittsburg’ without the ‘h’ turned up here and there in newspapers and other printed material, but official documents always retained the ‘h.’ Pittsburgh with the ‘h’ was the most common spelling. It seemed no one much cared about the occasional misspelling, for a while.
The true challenge came at the end of the 19th century. As the country expanded and technology evolved, the need for standardization arose. In 1890, the United States Board of Geographic Names, which was created to bring consistency to the spellings of locations throughout the country, deemed that all cities ending in ‘burgh’ must drop the ‘h’ in the spirit of uniformity.
The board even went to so far as to insert a special section in their report citing Pittsburg’s erroneously printed charter documents of 1816 as being correct and stating that the ‘h’ had been added by the post office, multiplying the confusion.
No matter who was to blame, the board’s action set off a controversy that would rage for 21 years. Although city ordinances and council minutes from those years show that the ‘h’ was retained in all official documents, several newspapers conformed to the directive of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
Some residents were pleased with the decision, but the majority was not. Those who liked the Pittsburgh without the ‘h’ reasoned that it was more modern. Those who disliked the ruling argued that the city would no longer be unique, making it as commonplace as the many other Pittsburgs throughout the land. Citizens campaigned to get their missing ‘h’ back. William H. Davis spearheaded the effort, enlisting the backing of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senator George T. Oliver in the battle.
Eventually, a special meeting of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (now known as the U.S. Geographical Board) was arranged. On July 19, 1911, the board met. A preponderance of evidence citing Pittsburgh spelled with the ‘h’ over the decades convinced the board to reinstate the final letter. A letter was sent to Senator Oliver that read:
At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board Held on July 19, 1911, the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without the final H was reconsidered and the form below was adopted:
Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).
G.S. Sloan, Secretary
The “h” is Back
Hallelujah! The ‘h’ was back. But old habits die hard. It wasn’t until October of that year that post office changed its postal machines. Ten years later, confusion still abounded. In 1921, in order to quell the confusion, the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce felt it necessary to release a pamphlet entitled ‘How to Spell Pittsburgh.’ It was sent to all media organizations. Evidently, not everyone got the message. For 20 years after the reversal, the Pittsburgh Press continued to use the ‘h-less’ spelling.
Although much of the confusion has dissipated, it still rears its head from time to time. In fact, in one The New York Times blog it was reported that in March of 2008 Barak Obama’s Presidential Campaign made the mistake and dropped the ‘h.’ In a press release outlining a campaign trip Obama’s team stated ‘Today, on the first leg of a six-day bus tour through parts of Pennsylvania, Sen. Obama visited with workers at a U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburg.’
And so, all the fuss and controversy over a single ‘h’ continues into the 21st century. But one thing Pittsburgh residents know for sure: no matter how you spell it, our Pittsburgh is a place like no other.