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How Pittsburgh Got Its "H" Back

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Thanks to the United States Board on Geographic Names, big cities and little towns alike lost a lot of character in the late 1800s. In 1891, with President Benjamin Harrison’s stamp of approval, the board decided a few things about how towns should be named.

1. “In names ending in ‘burgh,’ the final ‘h’ should be dropped.”

Oh, you’ve been happily using that “h” for more than a century? You’ve got newspapers, baseball teams, and buildings already bearing the consonant? Too bad. While most cities didn’t mind enough to raise a stink about it, Pittsburgh didn’t make the change to “Pittsburg” quietly. The city was originally named to honor William Pitt the Elder, but it was General John Forbes who did the naming. His Scottish background is the reason for that extra “h”—think Edinburgh. To edit the spelling to the German “burg” was akin to editing the city’s founding. After 20 years of complaints, the Board finally overturned their previous decision on Pittsburg(h)’s controversial consonant on July 19, 1911. Town representatives got a little sassy when they announced victory:

Hon. George T. Oliver, United States Senate:

Sir: At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911, the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without a final H was reconsidered and the form given below was adopted:

Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).

Very respectfully,

Pittsburgh isn’t the only city that battled for an H. In 2006, the citizens of Alburg, Vermont, voted to change the name of the town back to its original spelling of “Alburgh,” which had endured a stunted spelling since the 1891 Board decision.

2. “The possessive form should be avoided whenever it can be done without destroying the euphony of the name, or changing its descriptive action.”

Hence Downers Grove, Pikes Peak, and Harpers Ferry. In fact, as of May 2013, the Committee has only approved five official possessive apostrophes in the entire United States—Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Ike’s Point, N.J.; John E’s Pond, R.I.; Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Ariz.; and Clark’s Mountain, Ore. And even Martha’s Vineyard had to fight for three decades until getting their possessive restored in 1933.

3. “Names ending in ‘borough’ should be abbreviated to ‘boro.’”

Middlesboro, Kentucky, a little town of about 10,000, near the Cumberland Gap, lost its “ugh” thanks to this rule. So did Marlborough, Massachusetts, named after a town in England. The Massachusetts town really felt the three-letter loss and rallied to have them restored.

4. "The word 'center,' as part of a name, should be spelled as above and not 'centre.'"

At least two places in the U.S. have managed to skirt the issue: Centre, Alabama, and Centre County, Pennsylvania.

5. "The use of hyphens in connecting part of names should be discontinued."

There are a few hyphenates still in existence today: Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Milton-Freewater, Oregon, among others. But names like Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne Park, New York, were obliterated with the new 1891 rule. In its place, of course? "Nehasane."

Image: USPS

6. "In the case of names consisting of more than one word, it is desirable to combine them to one word."

Obviously that one didn’t stick as well as the ban on hyphens and possessive apostrophes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1894, a slew of cities with two names, like Olive Bridge, New York, were smushed together into single words: Olivebridge.

7. "It is desirable to avoid the use of diacritic characters."

Those are accented letters such as “á,” or letters with glyphs, such as “ö.” It’s possible that San Jose fell victim to the 1891 homogenization of city spellings. Though it was originally founded as “El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe” in 1777, let’s be honest—that was never going to fit on a postmark. Whether or not the change was due to the Board on Geographic Names, the city’s spelling morphed into “San Jose” over the years. Since 1979, however, the city has been using the diacritic-infused “San José” on the city seal and official city correspondence. The city charter still recognizes “San Jose” as the city name.

8. "It is desirable to avoid the use of the words city and town, as parts of names."

Tell that to Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Atlantic City, New York City, Iowa City, and Salt Lake City.

Primary photo—part of an 1892 map of Pennsylvania—courtesy of MapsofPA.

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Hamilton Broadway
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.


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