Pop quiz: What’s Pittsburgh motto?
If you guessed “The Steel City,” “The City of Bridges,” “The City of Champions,” or “A Most Livable City,” those are all good guesses. But they’re also wrong.
It’s actually “Benigno Numine” (“By Divine Providence”), which was the motto of Sir William Pitt’s family. It was a part of the coat of arms at the city’s incorporation in 1816 and fell out of use in the early 1900s until it became the official motto again in 1950, per the mayor’s office. Today, it remains in use in the city’s seal, though it’s not on advertising or promotional materials.
And, though it’s official, Pittsburghers are more likely to identify with of the city’s unofficial slogans. The slogans for a handful of towns around the city hold similar intrigue — whether official or unofficial.
Some local town mottos date back more than a century, while other are just a few decades old. In some communities, they serve as a unifying theme or did at one time and have been forgotten over the years.
So what’s in a motto?
For these local towns, it turns out, either a lot of symbolism or nothing much at all. Here’s the backstory on five of the most interesting town mottos around Pittsburgh.
America’s Small Town Music Capital
Canonsburg, Washington County
In Canonsburg, it’s all about the music.
“It’s the home of Perry Como and Bobby Vinton and The Four Coins and The Four Townsmen, and the heritage of music goes on and on and on,” Canonsburg Mayor David Rhome said.
To this day, there’s a statue of beloved crooner Perry Como in front of the borough building, and plaques with music notes dot trees across town.
“Our marching band in our schools is very, very rich in music,” Rhome said about the Canon-McMillan band.
“America’s Small Town Music Capital” has been the town’s slogan for at least 20 years, he estimated.
“When you’re from town here or from the neighboring area,” he said, “you’re proud of the heritage that Canonsburg brought to the communities.”
The Magic City
Charleroi, Washington County
No, this name has nothing to do with pulling rabbits out of hats. But it does involve some trickery.
In the 1890s, a man named M. J. Alexander, a prominent promoter and capitalist associated with the “boomtown” phenomenon, promised that he could transform this patch of Washington County farmland into a thriving metropolis practically overnight.
Alexander and his “cartel” “presented themselves as industrialists but they were also real estate scammers, and they created a city overnight,” explained Terry Necciai, past president of the Mon Area Historical Society and executive director of the Monongahela Main Street Program. Alexander’s group included civil engineers and investors from the glass industry.
They made big claims in local newspapers, divided a farm into 1,000 “unusually narrow lots,” and sold all of them within six months, Necciai said.
They bragged that they’d attract 10,000 people in 10 years. Though they didn’t reach that goal, they did draw 6,000.
You could call it … magic.
“It was a magic city,” Necciai said. “It just popped out of nowhere.”
The term “The Magic City” started popping up in newspapers, though it’s not clear if Alexander himself coined the term or if he just adopted it after seeing it published.
A drawing from the 1800s shows a banner strung across a street reading: “The Magic City is not 5 years old. But give us 5 years like 1890 and we will be part of the Greater Pittsburg.” (Yes, that’s Pittsburgh without the -h.)
Residents embraced the name, calling the town’s sports teams “The Magicians” and naming the town center “Magic City Square.”
Like a magnet, the town attracted visitors from neighboring towns to bowl, shop, see movies, ride streetcars, and even to hold union meetings.
The town teemed with several hundred stores — including 13 shoe stores. Merchants sometimes called the town “Shoe-laroi,” Necciai said. More recently, the town changed its name to “Pyrex, Pa.” for 100 days in celebration of its signature product and legacy in glass manufacturing.
“M.J. succeeded in creating a town of 6,000 in 10 years,” Necciai said. “And a town that scared all of its neighbors in terms of retail for 100 years.”
Next to yours, the best town in the USA / The Home of Champions
Donora, Washington County
In the 1930s, the national Chamber of Commerce wanted to encourage Americans to have pride in their hometowns and to shop at local stores, so they came up with a motto: “Next to yours, the best town in the USA.”
It’s not known how many towns actually adopted it, but Donora did around 1938, said Brian Charlton, curator/archivist at the Donora Historical Society.
Signs bearing the motto used to welcome visitors at both ends of town, but they’re now “long gone,” he added.
What exactly did the ambiguous sign mean?
“That’s up to interpretation. We’d need to ask the Chamber of Commerce of Donora in 1938 and the national Chamber of Commerce. I think it’s what America used to be — a very welcoming place,” he said. “You come from a good place, and you’ve come to a good place.”
Though the sign doesn’t stand anymore, a photo of it is on display at the historical society’s museum, Charlton said, and “people of a certain age still identify with that.”
A new motto came in vogue around the 1950s, given the town’s successful athletes, such as Stan Musial and Arnold Galiffa: The Home of Champions.
A sign at the entrance to town still bears “The Home of Champions” moniker.
A Community with Character
Mt. Lebanon, Allegheny County
In 2001, Mt. Lebanon leaders created a 17-minute video to promote the community and its school district. The video needed a title, and “A Community with Character” fit the bill.
“I honestly — I just made that up,” said Susan Fleming Morgans, the municipality’s public information officer. “I’m sure nowadays things wouldn’t be so informal. I’m sure it would now be a six-month long project. You’d have to involve the whole staff and all the elected officials.”
Despite the informality, the name stuck.
“It seemed to me we have a lot of character among the people in our community … who volunteer their time to make it a better place to live,” Morgans said.
Several factors led to Morgans’ idea for the phrase. First, the district’s elementary schools had recently launched a character education program. Second, the community had formed its first historic preservation board, aimed at taking pride in the area’s various housing styles from bungalows to Tudors.
It’s also a neutral slogan that can be infused with many meanings.
Maybe a resident likes the town’s sidewalks, welcoming neighbors, dog-friendly vibe, or nature — “maybe that’s something you think gives our community character; you can take from it what you will,” Morgans said.
The phrase is used on marketing materials, such as the community’s website, paperwork for new residents, and magazines.
“What does character mean? It means something different to everybody, but it’s always good,” Morgans said. “I’m retiring in March, so maybe that will be my legacy: Mt. Lebanon, a community with character.”
City of Churches / The Holy City
Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County
First, let’s clear up one thing: Wilkinsburg isn’t a city. It’s a borough.
But don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good alliteration.
“We had so many churches,” said Anne Elise Morris, president of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society. “Sometimes people refer to it as The Holy City; sometimes the City of the Churches.”
The latter stuck because of the alliterative sound, she added.
“At one point, we had 35 churches in 2.3 square miles, which is a lot churches in 2.3 square miles,” Morris said.
That’s all thanks to a man named James Kelly, who owned 1,000 acres of countryside spanning present-day Wilkinsburg, Edgewood, and Penn Hills. In the 1840s, he donated land to causes he felt passionately about, such as a senior care home, schools, and, of course, churches.
“He also had a heart for religion, so if a group came to him and said they wanted to build a church, he would donate them a piece of land for that,” Morris said. “A number of people jumped on the bandwagon and got their group together and approached him for land in Wilkinsburg — that’s why a number of churches just developed.”
Kelly lost the land in 1879 over taxes at a sherriff’s sale, and he died in 1882.
But his legacy carried on after his death.
“Because he had set the pace for donating all the land for churches, a lot of other denominations wanted to be in Wilkinsburg, too,” Morris said. “We still have many, many historic churches. … We still are very much the City of Churches although it’s never been an official slogan.”
A new slogan is taking shape, too, she said: “Good All Over,” an homage to the slogan on parking validation tokens in the 1960s.
“That ‘Good All Over’ slogan is rapidly becoming the one that people associate with Wilkinsburg,” Morris said. “I don’t know if that’s ever going to become our official slogan, but we are seeing banners up reminding us it’s ‘good all over.'”