What's in an H?
in a name? Well, if it's Pittsburgh, then it's an 'h.' If you've
never noticed, Pittsburgh spells its name with an 'h' at the end. 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' isn'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
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' firmly intact in all referrals.
As the old song says, 'Little Things Mean a Lot,' and
that is certainly true when it comes to the correct
spelling of Pittsburgh. Why the confusion? It
stems from a controversy that occurred nearly 100 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; and it seemed
no one much cared about the occasional misspelling, for
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
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
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
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.
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