Updated July 19, 2019
It’s a rookie mistake. Forget the H in Pittsburgh, and it’s a sign you’re not from here.
But for about 20 years, spelling the city’s name with an H was a rebellious move.
The H makes our Pittsburgh unique from others across the country — including those in California, Ohio and North Carolina — but Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, said he doesn’t think being unique was the primary motivation to keep the H.
He suspects it was a more primal reaction.
Let’s start at the naming of Pittsburgh
It was November of 1758 when General John Forbes and George Washington rode into what’s now Point State Park and found the smoldering ruins of Fort Duquesne. They had to name it something, and it seemed like a good idea to name it for their boss, William Pitt the Elder. (That’s one way to score points.)
Forbes was Scottish so instead of -burg, he went with -burgh. It’s pronounced like borough; think of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, Masich said.
From there, Pittsburgh was usually spelled with an H, but sometimes without. (The Founding Fathers were great at many things. Consistency was not among them.)
So why was there drama over the H?
Short answer: Tradition.
By the 1800s, some people were calling the city Pittsburg instead of Pittsburgh, Masich said. But the turning point came in 1890. That’s when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided to standardize names in America, Masich said.
He said the board was probably trying to be helpful and make things easier for cartographers, post office workers and others who read handwritten letters and maps.
So cities named Pittsburg or Pittsburgh officially became Pittsburg.
But, Pittsburg-ers didn’t take it that way.
“When you grow up with something, and someone from the outside wants to change and take it away from from you, you’re resistant to change,” he said.
The board’s changes sparked a roughly 20-year saga to get the H back.
Official papers — maps, books, government documents — respected the change. But many resisted and continued to spell Pittsburgh with an H. There was even a petition to the U.S. Congress.
So after growing pressure, the board reversed its decision on July 19, 1911.
(Pro tip: If you’re out antique shopping or wandering the city looking at plaques and monuments, check the spelling, Masich advised. No H means it’s probably from 1890 to 1911.)
So the spelling is always correct now, right?
The most egregious error was probably the city charter from 1816, Masich said, when a clerk in Harrisburg left off the H. (Or maybe he was able to see into the future.)
You can see that misspelled charter at the Heinz History Center through the end of 2016.
Masich said forgetting the H can be a kind shibboleth. (Look it up here, but the short version for this comparison means that forgetting the H is a sign you aren’t a Pittsburgher.)
But, Masich warned — it works both ways.
After all, how many times have you tried adding an H to Gettysburgh or Harrisburgh? … Like they should be spelled.