H. It’s the first letter of my last name, and the last letter in Pittsburgh. In today’s Research It post, I’m rebooting this series with a lesser known fact about my hometown. At some point in every Pittsburgher’s life we’re tested on the spelling of our city’s name. The same goes for spelling Pennsylvanian names like Carnegie, Monongahela and Punxsutawney. Even my spell checker wants to shorten Punxutawney to “Tawney.”
If you’ve any interest in history as a whole, you may have run across the word “etymology.” You become a student of etymology when you look into why a place is named after a person, or why it’s spelled a certain way. With my every changing home town, Pittsburgh is its own conundrum. For as often as we look forward to the future (we had to after the steel industry’s collapse in the 1980s), we never want to forget our history.
However, not everyone knows that, for a brief time, Pittsburgh was spelt without that quintessential “h”. For twenty years, in fact, the ‘Burgh’ had no “h”.
Ugh. My pointer finger automatically went for the “h” key and I had to reach for the backspace. I cannot fathom spelling it that way today, though I’m sure those in Pittsburg California, Kansas, Oklahoma and others would disagree with me.
I first learned of the change as a child coming out of one of the buildings downtown (or dahtahn if you prefer). Many buildings have a plaque marking when it was built, with dates and perhaps a company’s name or two. Imagine the identity crisis I felt seeing Pittsburg(h) spelled “wrong.” I vowed to always spell Pittsburgh with an “h,” just as Anne adamantly requested her name be spelt with an “e” in Anne of Green Gables.”
The letter was dropped from official city documents, newspapers, buildings and even with the US Postal Service from 1891 to 1911. Visit Pittsburgh’s website explains it far better than I ever could:
In 1891 the United States Board on Geographic Names adopted thirteen general principles to be used in standardizing place names, one of which was that place names ending in -burgh should drop the final -h. At this time the city’s name was rendered “Pittsburg.”
The Board supported its decision to rename Pittsburgh by referencing the printed copies of the 1816 city charter which featured the spelling Pittsburg rather than Pittsburgh. Based on those copies, the Board claimed that the official name of the city had always been Pittsburg. However, the members of the board seem to have been unaware that the original 1816 charter specified the name of the city to be Pittsburgh, and that only the copies of the charter featured the erroneous spelling “Pittsburg.”
It took twenty years for the “h” to return, because both the city’s citizens and many locals and influential establishments wanted it back. So many petitions and much resistance to the change later, all maps today have Pittsburgh spelt with its ‘h.’
This is where it gets tricky for me. My chosen genre to write is historical adventure, and the series spans a thirty year period ending in 1892. It ends one year after the city’s name change begins in 1891.
How would you handle a situation like a city’s name change during the course of your historical work of fiction? Would you ignore the change and explain why in the appendixes? Would you include a rough joke or actual headlines to show what was happening during your novel’s timeline? Or would you say, “Hey, it’s historical adventure for a reason. Just got with whatevs and annoy every history buff out there”?
Please let me know in the comments below what you think. I’d love to hear feedback from other writers, and what interesting tidbits you have to share about uncommonly spelled places near your hometown! Happy Writing!