What Does a Key to the City Actually Do?

(Last Updated On: May 29, 2019)
What Does a Key to the City Actually Do?

One of the stock images that pop culture has given us when it comes to people being honored is the idea of having a “key to the city.” Generally, a famous native son/daughter or someone who managed to have a profound, helpful impact generally gets a big ceremony in their honor, capped off with a mayor or local dignitary providing them with an over-sized key.

The first “key to the city” ever awarded in America was in New York City, all the way back in 1702. At the time, then-Mayor Philip French executed a “Freedom of the City” for Viscount Edward Cornbury, who was the governor of New York and New Jersey.

But the question remains: what does a key to the city actually do?

The Purpose Of Keys To The City

The historical purpose of keys to the city was actually a rather practical one, that has a lot to do with how cities were constructed in the past.

In medieval times, major cities would naturally be fortified by walls and gates for the people’s protection. When a visiting hero or dignitary came to the town, the people would make an elaborate ceremony, and also present them with a key. This had a multifaceted purpose. For major merchants, it was to be able to enter the city without having to pay a toll. For local heroes, it was a sign of respect. And for visiting kings, it was a sign of both deference, but also autonomy. Sound weird? Basically, it was the town’s way of saying “we didn’t have to let you in, but we chose to anyway.” The major common thread here is that these keys were often functional.

Nowadays, however, the key is ornamental, and the ceremony is the bigger element here. Basically, this is a way for a city to honor someone for their actions/contributions. The more cynical may say it’s a bit of a PR stunt, but many consider it an honor nonetheless, even if the key doesn’t actually open anything.

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Unexpected Key To The City Awardees

Most people get the keys to the city for heroic actions or their career accomplishments. For example, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III getting the key to his hometown of Danville for his heroic actions on US Airways Flight 1549? Makes sense. Frank Sinatra getting the key to the city of Hoboken in 1947? Makes sense. However, there are plenty of people who have a key to the city for reasons that may look odd on paper, or awkward in retrospect. Here are a few examples.

Saddam Hussein: When it comes to notorious key to the city flubs, this has to be near the top. The Iraqi dictator actually received the key to the city of Detroit in 1980 for making a sizable donation to a local church.

Santa Claus: A bit of a safer bet when it comes to minimal backlash, Detroit also holds a ceremony where Santa gets a key to the city every year.

Glenn Beck: When the conservative talk show host got the key to the city from his hometown of Mount Vernon, WA, it ended up drawing a crowd of 800 protesters.

Cher: Cher getting the key to the city of Adelaide may not be a surprise, but what happened afterwards is why she is on this list – selling it on eBay for $90,000. She later said that someone in her office was responsible, but it made a lot of Australians upset.

Scarlett’s Magic: Chances are you haven’t heard of Scarlett’s Magic, unless you’re a cat lover. This recipient is actually a Savannah breed of cat, who got the key to the city of Corona, California, in celebration of being recognized as the world’s tallest cat by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011.