And the answer is…

So as The Legal Genealogist travels the highways and byways westward to Pennsylvania for tomorrow’s Family History Conference of the Centre County Genealogical Society in State College, here’s today’s trivia question of the day:

Why is Pennsylvania called the Keystone State?

Your possible answers:

a. It got the nickname “because it was the middle colony of the original thirteen colonies, and because Pennsylvania has held a key position in the economic, social, and political development of the United States.”1

b. In the Continental Congress vote for independence, “Pennsylvania’s vote … was noted as the keystone vote; the supporting vote for a new government.”2

c. When the Nation’s Capital was moved to Washington, D.C., the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge was built over Rock Creek and “Pennsylvania’s initials were carved into the ‘keystone’ of the arch supporting the bridge.”3

d. Who the heck knows?

e. Who cares?

Well, okay, I won’t go with that last one because, after all, we’re historians and researchers and we care about all this kind of stuff.

The truth is, there are a ton of possible explanations as to how Pennsylvania got that nickname, and most of them revolve around the notion of what a keystone is: “the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place” or, alternatively, “something on which associated things depend for support.”4

keystoneThe Old Farmer’s Almanac looked at that specific definition and noted: “A keystone is a wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place; it is a stone on which the associated stones depend for support. Geographically, Pennsylvania’s central location along the arch of the 13 original states calls to mind a keystone. Politically, Pennsylvania played a vital role in holding together the states of the newly formed Union.”5

Wikipedia’s explanation was that Pennsylvania was “a keystone state economically, having both the industry common to the North (making such wares as Conestoga wagons and rifles) and the agriculture common to the South (producing feed, fiber, food, and tobacco).”6

Another online source said Pennsylvania got the nickname “because it was the middle colony of the original thirteen colonies, and because Pennsylvania has held a key position in the economic, social, and political development of the United States.” It even went on to note that Pennsylvania’s state song mentions the state nickname in the second verse: “Birthplace of a mighty nation, Keystone of the land.”7

Now… let’s take care of that one right away. The Pennsylvania State Song is entitled “Pennsylvania,” by Eddie Khoury and Ronnie Bonner, and the lyrics weren’t written until 1990.8 And we know Pennsylvania was being called the Keystone State earlier: “At a Jefferson Republican victory rally in October 1802, Pennsylvania was toasted as ‘the keystone in the federal union,’ and in the newspaper Aurora the following year the state was referred to as ‘the keystone in the democratic arch.’”9

In other words, the nickname came long before the song, and not the other way around.

So… what is the answer to the question?

It looks like it really is answer d: “no one knows the exact reason behind the nicknaming Pennsylvania the Keystone State.”10

If you come up with a better answer than that, let me know.


SOURCES

  1. Official State Nickname of Pennsylvania,” StateSymbolsUSA.org (https://statesymbolsusa.org/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  2. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” NetState.com (http://www.netstate.com/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 17 May 2018), “keystone.”
  5. Why is Pennsylvania called the Keystone State?,” The Old Farmer’s Almanac (https://www.almanac.com/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  6. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Pennsylvania,” rev. 17 May 2018.
  7. Official State Nickname of Pennsylvania,” StateSymbolsUSA.org (https://statesymbolsusa.org/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  8. See generally Daniel Craig, “Did you know Pennsylvania has an official state song?,” PhillyVoice, posted 11 May 2016. For the lyrics, see “Pennsylvania Facts & History: State Song ‘Pennsylvania,’” VisitPa.com (https://visitpa.com/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  9. Pennsylvania: Past and Present Symbols,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
  10. Why is Pennsylvania Called the Keystone State?,” WiseGeek (http://www.wisegeek.com/ : accessed 17 May 2018).
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