Pittsburgh Bleeds Black And Gold, But How Did We End Up With Those Colors?

Jul 10, 2017

Take a walk through downtown or  the North Shore and it seems everything, from Pirates caps to government buildings to Heinz Field, radiates black and gold. The colors are synonymous with Pittsburgh sports and culture.

And the uniformity of the city's colors is no coincidence. Its origins are linked to the founding of Pittsburgh, according to Louise Sturgess, executive director of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.  

"The inspiration came from William Pitt's family coat of arms," Sturgess said.

A plaque on the Allegheny County Courthouse
Credit Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, was an 18th century British politician, referred to as "the great commoner," who was serving as secretary of state when Pittsburgh was founded and named in his honor in 1758. 

General John Forbes named Pittsburgh after Pitt and ordered that a British fort be built, with Fort Pitt completed in 1761. Once built, Pittsburgh began to grow beyond the walls of the fort. 

Sturgess said when the city was incorporated in 1816, elements of the Pitt family crest were used when designing the city seal. The crest is comprised of a black shield, decorated with three gold coins and a strip of a blue and white checkerboard pattern in the middle. An elaborate crown sits atop of the shield, with a roaring lion and upright stag on the sides.

The city of Pittsburgh seal features a black shield, decorated with three gold circles, and a blue and white checkerboard pattern across the middle. Sound familiar?

Each symbol and color has meaning, Sturgess said, which represents the ideals of the Pitt family.

A Pittsburgh souvenir shop features a sea of black and yellow clothes and knickknacks. The colors are synonymous with the city, thanks to the official municipal flag and uniformity of the area's sports teams.
Credit Margaret Sun / 90.5 WESA

"The black shield is the idea of constancy or grief, think about it in terms of endurance, perseverance," Sturgess said. "He has three gold coins, those are called Bezants, and it comes from the idea of a gold coin from Byzantium which became Constantinople and is now Istanbul. And they were symbols of trust and honesty."

The blue and white checkerboard pattern would have been the robe colors of the Pitt family for formal occasions, such as visiting Parliament. Sturgess said the color combination represents peace and security.

The University of Pittsburgh mascot, "ROC" the Panther, sports the school's blue and gold color scheme at a basketball game in 2007.
Credit Kevin Coles / flickr

But the city seal does sport differences; above the black shield is a fortress, which in heraldry signifies a city. Also unlike the crest, the seal includes eagles inside of the gold coins, which symbolize courage and strength.

The colors have been adopted by non-government organizations, like sports teams and universities. The Steelers have used black and gold in their logo since the team was incorporated in 1933. The Pirates and the Penguins also identify with black and gold, as well as the occasional use of blue and white for the Penguins. Combinations of gold, blue and white also are used by the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer league. 

"So, whether it's blue and white or blue and gold or black and gold, all those colors come from the Pitt family coat of arms," Sturgess said. "They've been used by all of our sports teams and so they are colors that mean Pittsburgh, definitely a source of pride."

*UPDATED: July 11, 2017 at 12:05 p.m. 

(Photo: Flickr/Kevin Coles)