Category: History

  • Cleaning Up After the 1936 Pittsburgh Flood

    Here we have a short film, whose source is unidentified, of some of the cleanup after the St. Patrick’s Day Flood in 1936. It seems to be amateur footage, but it’s good enough to show us what a mess everything was. (It seems to be impossible to embed correctly on, so you’ll actually have to leave this site to see it. But hurry on back.)

  • Well Dressed in German, Too

    In the 1890s, a department store in Pittsburgh that made any pretense to customer service would need a multilingual staff. Here’s an 1892 advertisement for Kaufmann’s from the Volksblatt, one of three German daily newspapers in Pittsburgh at the time. From this advertisement we can gather that a gentleman could be a gentleman with or without a cigar, but no gentleman who pretended to fashion would venture forth without his stick.

  • Washington and Guyasuta

    With one of the grandest views in North America spread out before them, real-estate magnate George Washington and Chief Guyasuta discuss their plans for the construction of Heinz Field. The sculpture, a bronze by James A. West, is called “Points of View.” Father Pitt suspects the title may be a pun of some sort.

  • Fort Pitt Blockhouse

    Old Colonel Bouquet was proud enough of his little blockhouse that he carved his name in the stone above the door. Or rather he had one of his minions do it, because officers don’t have to do things like that for themselves.

    The rafters in the roof are almost all original. When the fort became superfluous in the late 1700s, the little building was sold off and ended up a private dwelling.

    Eventually the Daughters of the American Revolution bought the place and stripped away the later accretions. Now the blockhouse  looks much as it did when Col. Bouquet was in charge.

    Bouquet, by the way, may have been proud enough to put his name on the blockhouse; but finding that he had the honor of naming the fort and the little trading town that instantly appeared beside it, he chose to name them both after William Pitt, prime minister at the time, who was largely credited with the British victories against France all over the world.

  • “The Rosary” by Ethelbert Nevin

    After Stephen Foster, Ethelbert Nevin is Pittsburgh’s most famous composer. Like Chopin, Nevin seldom attempted anything longer than five minutes or so (Chopin did a couple of piano concertos, but who remembers them nowadays?). Also like Chopin, he died young (at the age of 39, just like Chopin). Unlike Chopin, he has been almost forgotten, but when he died in 1901 he was one of the great names in light classical music. “Narcissus” and “Gondolieri” remained in the parlor-piano repertory until people forgot how to play pianos and stopped building houses with parlors.

    One of Nevin’s most famous compositions was “The Rosary,” Here is a recording (MediaFire link) by the great viola player William Primrose, accompanied by the mediocre conductor Charles O’Connell and the Victor Symphony Orchestra. This recording was taken from a beat-up 78-RPM Victor Red Seal record, and the conversion to MP3 has muddied it a bit. If you want the original WAV file, it’s here (another MediaFire link), but be aware that it’s nearly 15 megabytes. The surface noise is not too distracting, and the performance brings out all the sentimentality that made “The Rosary” such a big hit.

    It appears that this recording has been allowed to lapse into the public domain. If there is a copyright owner who objects to Father Pitt’s making it available here, Father Pitt will be happy to remove it.

  • Pittsburgh, Leader of All

    Just in time for the Pittsburgh Summit, a rousing march by Alma Y. Johnson to use as our anthem. It was originally published in 1926 by Ms. Johnson herself. Click on the pictures for full-size JPEG pages that you can print and carry to your piano or parlor organ. The cover alone is worth your time: it bears a sketch of the Pittsburgh skyline as it appeared in 1926, and its black-and-gold colors show us that some things never change.








    These are the lyrics, reprinted as they are punctuated in the original:


    1. The Spirit of Progress took wing
    O’er America’s land coast to coast,
    From the East where of Pilgrims they sing
    To the West, where of wonders they boast
    From the North, where the lake waters gleam
    To the South, where the Rio Grande flows,
    And came to the place of her dreams,
    Where the fire of genius glows.



    Oh! Pittsburgh, City born of skill,
    The child of river and of hill,
    Heir to blessings from on high
    The promise of time gone by.
    Comrade gay to all who thrive
    The hope of those who bravely strive,
    Father of Industry, Patron of the Arts,
    Pittsburgh! Leader of all.


    2. The deeds of thy children are known
    Where courage and faith have joined hand,
    Thy standard of learning has flown
    On the breeze, over ocean and land
    Thy steel, bright and true, spans the world
    ’Cross river and mountain and glen
    Thy banner of Progress unfurled
    Leads on the souls of men.




    Note: This music is in the public domain, so anyone can reproduce or perform it in public at any time and for any reason.

  • The Old Custom House

    Click on the picture to enlarge it.

    The old custom house in Pittsburgh as it appeared in 1857, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In the middle nineteenth centuy, Pittsburgh was making its transition from a rather grubby industrial town to a magnificently grubby metropolis; note the difference in scale between the custom house and its neighbors.

  • Rare Surviving Victorian Lettering


    The demolition of a building on Forbes Avenue downtown laid bare not only a splendid canvas for some rather unimaginative graffiti, but also half of a painted sign for a Victorian cafe that once occupied this spot. The part that survives is in an extraordinary state of preservation, so we can appreciate the rakish backslant of the bold but ornate letters that spell out “–mmel’s Cafe.”

  • Fireproof for Price of Fire Trap


    Enlarged from a 1914 advertisement, an engraving of the J. O’Neil Sanitary Storage building, on Diamond Street, probably uptown. Fire Proof Storage for Price of Fire Trap! You carry your own key! The you-store-it industry is obviously nothing new.

  • Spiraling Crime

    Everyone loves to talk about how much worse things are now than they were then. The golden-age fallacy causes us to imagine that our current state of sin and corruption is a decline from the high standards of the generations before us.

    Thanks to the Library of Congress’ collection of printed ephemera, here is a notice (click to enlarge) that would have greeted hotel guests in Pittsburgh in the Victorian age, that time of strict morality and righteous virtue: