The 10 Brands That Built Pittsburgh
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Laser-cut wood print created by TechShop, Bakery Square.
Not every city’s nickname is tied up in business. Head down to New Orleans and you’ll visit the Crescent City, named for a bend in the Mississippi River. Chicago maintains its nickname, the Windy City, even though no one can tell you who first used that moniker.
Here? We’re the Steel City.
Pittsburgh is known around the world for its manufacturing mettle, a tradition that begins with the first titans of American industry and persists today. But the connections between the city and its most iconic brands are myriad, and they go beyond heavy metal. From glass and aluminum to ketchup and candy, Pittsburgh has made its mark thanks in large part to the instantly recognizable brands that remain etched not merely on its buildings — but on its DNA.
In our annual Made in Pittsburgh feature, we look at 10 of those brands to explore how they helped to establish and define the Steel City.
By Annie Siebert
images courtesy alcoa
Pittsburgh is known as the Steel City, but another metal also rose to prominence here — aluminum. Alcoa, first incorporated as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888, started small, providing aluminum for the manufacture of utensils.
By 1891, it had secured the backing of the Mellon family, outgrown its original facility on Smallman Street in the Strip District and moved its operations north to New Kensington. In 1907, it changed its name to the Aluminum Company of America — but adopted the Alcoa name just three years later.
By the 1950s, Alcoa was headquartered in what now is called the Regional Enterprise Tower on Sixth Avenue, Downtown, and moved its Pittsburgh home to an aluminum-and-glass building overlooking the banks of the Allegheny River on the North Shore in 1998. While Alcoa may be best known for household innovations such as aluminum foil, it has grown into a global company (it has operations in more than 30 countries) that makes much more than products for use in the kitchen.
- In 1886, Charles Martin Hall discovered an affordable way to create aluminum and incorporated the Pittsburgh Reduction Company; the same process was discovered by Paul Héroult in France at about the same time. The resulting method — dubbed the Hall-Heroult process — still is the only cost-effective way to create aluminum more than a century later.
- Alcoa’s entry into the kitchen was born a year later, in 1889. The company developed an aluminum tea kettle to pique the interest of cookware manufacturers.
- When Orville Wright got off the ground on Dec. 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, N.C., the engine block and crankcase of his plane were made of Alcoa aluminum (the better to keep the small plane lightweight).
- Alcoa’s legacy almost certainly is in your kitchen right now. In 1910, the company introduced aluminum foil to grateful at-home chefs around the world.
- Many a Pittsburgh barfly would argue that Alcoa’s most important invention came in 1962: pull tab rings on aluminum cans. Alcoa first used the tabs on the Pittsburgh Brewing Company’s Iron City beer.
- Alcoa aluminum was used in the Apollo 11 landing module Eagle, which landed on the moon in July 1969. Aluminum usage is rapidly increasing today in the automotive and aerospace industries due to its light weight, alloy strengths, formability and corrosion resistance.
As this collection of Alcoa’s branding and advertisements demonstrates, the company has focused on demonstrating the myriad applications of its aluminum — from beer cans to hubcaps.
“Alcoa has always been a values-driven company. When I was general counsel, it was in a way one of the easiest jobs, because you never worried about integrity ... When former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill arrived in 1987, we spent time examining ourselves and our values. Paul’s central theme was safety, and today the statistics on Alcoa’s performance on safety show dramatic improvement from before he arrived. The objective was simple: that Alcoa’s employees would return home in the same state they arrived at work that day. Paul’s focus on safety had an uplifting effect on Alcoa’s performance across the board. Alcoa today ranks among the world’s best-performing companies on safety because it is now embedded in the company’s culture ... It was closer to Midwestern values — consistency in performance, being closely attuned to and anticipating customer needs and being conscious of your stakeholders. Over the years, Alcoa has made substantial grants to the Pittsburgh area through the Alcoa Foundation. Typically, between $30 million to $40 million [per year] was donated to various worthy causes, not only in Pittsburgh but heavily in Pittsburgh. There was a strong sense of obligation to support the communities where we were based and where we operate.”
— Richard L. Fischer, retired Alcoa general counsel (1983-1990), executive vice president — chairman’s counsel, president of Alcoa International Holdings (1991-2000)