Pittsburgh and its “h”: a love story

cross-posted, because my wife made me, from my wildly unpopular kinja blog

A “sitting First Justice in the Pittsburg [sic] area” left this comment on a Gawker item earlier this morning, and while pointing out her error was a little petty on my part, since in all probability it was a typo just as she says, in my defense we native Pittsburghers can be pretty touchy about our “h.” Why? Well, because for about 20 years back in at the turn of the 20th century, we had it taken away from us.

Plenty of folks who don’t know the history of the “h” think that it was a later addition to the city’s name, I guess to class it up or something. But in fact the “h” was there from the beginning, when John Forbes pushed the French out of Fort Duquesne in 1758 and announced the victory in a letter to British Prime Minister William Pitt that was post-marked “Pittsbourgh” (like “Edinbourgh”). Now, from the very beginning there was some confusion about this, because when the town charter was drawn up in 1816 it spelled “Pittsburgh” with an “h,” but the printer erroneously omitted that “h” in the final, printed, version of the document. For most of the 19th century the spelling with the “h” was more common, thanks to the local post office adopting that version for official purposes, but “Pittsburg” appears plenty of times as well. Then, in 1891, the city was rocked by a clear case of Science Tyranny.

The “United States Board on Geographic Names” (jerks) was formed in 1890 and “given authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names.” True Pittsburghers know that it was established to take our “h” away, but whatever. They decided on 13 (yeah, way to pick the unluckiest number, eggheads) principles to standardize place names (pencil-necked geeks love everything to be “standard,” and “simplified” and “not to add any totally extraneous letters” and crap like that), one of which was that all place names ending in a “-berg” or “-burg” sound should have it spelled “BURG.” Pittsburghers and Pittsburgers immediately squared off, the latter extolling the “American-ness” of the new standardized name while the former were lamenting the lost bit of unique heritage that was our precious “h.” Federal government offices would mostly (have to) adopt the “h”-less spelling, but state and local governments, as well as private institutions, were still free to do whatever they wanted, and many retained our “h.”

pittsburgh and its "h": a love story
Interestingly, one of the last “Pittsburg” holdouts was The Pittsburg Press, the city’s largest newspaper, which didn’t add the “h” until 1921.

So the heavy hand of government-sanctioned geography would oppress the city of Pittsburgh for two decades, until one brave soul stepped forward and cried “ENOUGH!” This man was William Hamilton Davis, who became regional postmaster for Pittsburg(h) in 1906. Davis fought tirelessly against the full might of Washington until the injustice that was the theft of Pittsburgh’s “h” was finally rectified. OK, actually he just got the Geographic Board to hold a meeting to reconsider their decision, and they did, and a great cheer arose throughout the land, for Freedom won a victory that day. You might even say it won a “Heck” of a victory.

It’s perhaps not surprising, given its etymological history, that Pittsburgh claims to be “America’s most misspelled city.” Compounding the problem is that, of the ~20 or so other “Pittsburg/Pittsburgh”s in the United States, only one (as far as I can tell), in North Dakota, spells its name with an “h.” Many of these places were actually named after the original Pittsburgh, either by transplanted Pittsburghers or admirers of the city’s industrial might, but a few were named for William Pitt directly. Either way, most of them omit the “h.” The town now known as Tipton, KS, was originally named “Pittsburg” after the farmer who founded it, a different William Pitt. No “h.” It had to change its name when that William Pitt sold the name to the town of “New Pittsburg” (also no “h”), Kansas, which was named after Pittsburgh but didn’t use the “h” anyway, and “New Pittsburg, KS” became Pittsburg, KS, as it is still known today, still without the “h.”

All this is well and good, but the original, and therefore best, “Pittsburgh” is spelled with an “h,” thank you very much. If the feds couldn’t take it from us, nobody else will either.


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