What does the symbol on the Steelers' helmets stand for? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What does the symbol on the Steelers' helmets stand for?

Question submitted by: Thomas Morgan

I live in fear of the day when somebody asks the question "Why are they called the Steelers?" Sounds impossible, but only a couple decades ago, no one would have needed to ask what the logo meant either.


The design dates back to the 1930s, when our football team was awful and the steel industry wasn't doing much better.


The inspiration for the logo was the "Steelmark," a promotional idea dreamed up by US Steel that featured the familiar triad of red, blue, and yellow stars.


Those stars, incidentally, are technically referred to as "hypocycloids." That's a geometric term defined as follows: "the curve traced by a point on the circumference of a circle that rolls around the inner circumference of another circle." Just the thing for confusing opposing linemen.


That wasn't the logo's original purpose, of course. According to US Steel itself, the Steelmark was "part of a major marketing campaign to educate consumers about how important steel is in their daily lives. The Steelmark was used in print, radio, and television ads" and on products ranging "from steel tanks to tricycles to filing cabinets."


I'm not entirely sure how you use a visual logo in a radio ad. But the company did have a sort of jingle that explained the meaning of each color: "Yellow lightens your work / Orange brightens your leisure / Blue widens your world."


Unless I'm much mistaken, Jimi Hendrix borrowed a similar approach for the lyrics to "Bold As Love." I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks he'd have made a fine steel industry executive. At the very least, he'd have figured out a way to make us see the Steelmark during radio ads.


At any rate, in the kind of selfless gesture that has long been a company hallmark, US Steel gave up the logo in the early 1960s, granting use of it to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The trade group's members soon started using it in their own ads and products.


And according to the Steelers' official history, in 1962, Cleveland-based Republic Steel suggested the Steelers use the logo themselves.


That's right: The Steelers logo was suggested by executives from Cleveland. We'll be stealing defensive linemen from Cincinnati next. But the idea was a clever piece of product placement for the entire American steel industry.


And by the 1970s, the AISI changed the meaning of those hypocycloids, to reflect the critical ingredients in steelmaking. Red was for iron ore, presumably because that's the color of iron as it is typically found in nature. Yellow, the color of the sun, was for the coal that heated the furnaces. And blue represents scrap metal because ... because ... because blue is universally recognized as the color representing scrap metal. I guess.


A lot of folks wonder why the logo, as rich in nuance as it is, only gets applied to the right side of the helmet. According to the team's official history, the equipment manager was instructed to do so, and the following year, the Steelers finished 9-5. That kind of record would have people calling for Cowher's head today, but at the time it was the best the team had ever done. The Steelers even made the playoffs, and as the team history explains, the owners "wanted to do something special for their first postseason game, so they changed the [background] color of their helmets from gold to black, which helped to highlight the new logo."


So why are the Steelers the only team that leaves the logo on one side? In part because they're the only team that does it, and in part because an old gambler like team owner Art Rooney knew better than to toss away a lucky charm. As the team's history explains, "Because of the interest generated by having the logo on only one side of their helmets and because of their team's new success, the Steelers decided to leave it that way permanently."


I sort of like the stubborn idiosyncrasy of that; in a way, it's more emblematic of our city than the logo itself. (Especially now that steel's importance here has waned.) We do things in a Pittsburgh way that may seem odd or backwards to others, but it's ours. And anyway, the 3-4 defense was once supposed to be an anachronism as well.

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