What on God's green earth is the meaning of the Allegheny County seal? Are those mushrooms? And is that boat the Pirates' original ship? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What on God's green earth is the meaning of the Allegheny County seal? Are those mushrooms? And is that boat the Pirates' original ship?

Question submitted by: Alida Baker, North Side



What? You're confused by our county seal? Surely you were taught about the three-masted schooners that once plied the wine-dark seas of western Pennsylvania, hunting the great white whale! Shiver me timbers -- as we lifelong Allegheny County residents like to say -- what are they teaching in schools today?



"Mushrooms"? Those are sheaves of wheat!  Has all that book-larnin' made you forget Allegheny County's grain farmers? Those hardy souls tilling the soil along McKnight Road? And as Allegheny County's Communications department puts it, the plow in the symbol's center "signifies subterranean and earth-related resources, thus emblematizing the agricultural and mining activities of the county." What could be clearer?


All right, I admit it: The seal is a bit dated. By about two centuries. Which is about right for these parts, really. And the truth is that our seal was just lifted from the seal for the state of Pennsylvania. Again, for a place that regards every new Krispy Kreme as a great leap forward for our region's identity, perhaps it's appropriate that we borrowed our seal from someplace else.


As with so much of the state's identity, however, the image reflects Philadelphia's influence to the exclusion of all else. According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, when Pennsylvania became a state, it took its seal from the crests of three eastern counties: Philadelphia, Chester and Sussex. Chester's seal included a plow, Philadelphia's a ship (which made sense since Philly was, unlike Pittsburgh, near an actual ocean) and Sussex boasted a sheaf of wheat. Rather unimaginatively, the state just piled them on top of each other, surrounded them with an eagle, olive branch and other American-looking stuff.


Allegheny County didn't even exist then -- we were part of the unsettled western frontier -- so we didn't get a say in the state seal. Truth be told, we haven't bothered to assert ourselves much since. Instead of making up our own symbol, we just took the old one and tried to pretend it meant something new. The county's Web site argues that in modern times the "colonial emblems have ... [taken] on new significance." For example: "The sheaves of wheat typify the county's harvests, both agricultural and ... in the areas of mining, manufacturing, and intellectual production." OK, so the wheat represents steel and coal and so on. What could be more obvious? But the plow -- whose blade is actually made out of metal -- supposedly represents "early glassmaking and other domestic-related county industries"? 


I kind of get the feeling that officials just started with an image and then tried to figure out what it stood for. Then again, I've had that feeling this entire election season.

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