Prior to the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi, Manila was a Muslim chiefdom headed by datus. From the defeat of Rajah Sulayman's forces in 1595 to the passage of the Maura Law in 1895, the chief executive of the city was appointed by the Spanish government to a person of Spanish descent. The highest position a Filipino was able to hold was the cabeza de barangay. With the passage of the Maura Law, the office of capitan municipal was established, with the people electing their own town heads, although the Spanish retained considerable influence and can veto decisions.
With the eruption of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine–American War, the position reverted to an appointive head. With the advent of World War II, President Manuel L. Quezon appointed Jorge B. Vargas as "mayor of Greater Manila" (forerunner of Metro Manila) in 1941. With the liberation of Manila in 1945 by combined Filipino and American soldiers under the United States Army and the Philippine Commonwealth Army including local recognized guerrillas against the Japanese Imperial forces, the earlier setup was used once again.
With the amendment of the city's charter in 1951, the position became an elective post. The first mayoral election was in 1951, and Manila's congressman from the 2nd district Arsenio Lacson defeated incumbent Manuel de la Fuente. A few years after the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos, Manila and nearby cities like Quezon City, Caloocan, Pasay and Makati, were overshadowed by the office of the governor of the newly created Metro Manila, whom Marcos appointed his wife, Imelda Marcos, to the position.
With Arsenio Lacson becoming the first elected Mayor, the City of Manila underwent The Golden Age, was revitalized, and once again became the "Pearl of the Orient", a moniker it earned before the outbreak of the war. After Mayor Lacson's term in the fifties, the city was led by Mayor Antonio Villegas during most of the 60's, and Mayor Ramon Bagatsing for nearly the entire decade of the 70's until the 1986 Edsa revolution.
Mayors Lacson, Villegas, and Bagatsing are often collectively considered as "the Big Three of Manila" for their rather long tenures as the City Hall's chief executive (continuously for over three decades, from 1952 - 1986), but more importantly, for their indelible contribution to the development and progress of the City and their lasting legacy in uplifting the quality of life and welfare of the people of Manila.