Over the years, New York City has aggregated quite the list of nicknames. Some are pretty self-explanatory — “The City that Never Sleeps,” “The City of Dreams,” “Empire City,” — but what’s not so obvious is the history behind New York’s most famous epithet. Where in the world did the “The Big Apple” come from?
For quite some time, the origins of the nickname, “The Big Apple,” were tacked up old wives tales. One of the most popular since-debunked myths, entitled the “Whore Hoax,” stated that a Madame named Eve once ran a popular brothel by the same name. However, thanks to etymologist and dictionary contributor, Barry Popik, a far more concrete origin story has come into focus. Popik — who is also widely recognized as the reigning authority on the history of the names “The Windy City” and “hot dog,” among other foods — relates that the earliest roots of “The Big Apple” can be traced all the way back to the late 1800’s.
The popularization of “The Big Apple,” is credited to John J. Fitz Gerald, a 1920’s journalist and sports writer for the NY Morning Telegraph. For several years in the ’20s and ’30s, Fitz Gerald wrote a horse racing column for the Morning Telegraph entitled “Around the Big Apple.”
Fitz Gerald’s inspiration for the name, however, is the result of what’s most likely years of subconscious connections. For example, the connection between apples and horses has a bit of a bizarre past considering apples aren’t necessarily a horse’s top food item. Nonetheless, references to horses eating apples appear in various cartoons and short stories dating back to as early as 1892. This history is then also combined with the pre-1920’s popular usage of phrases such as “Bet a Big Apple” and “Big Apples are top of the Barrel,” and NY Morning Telegraph’s use of “Big Time” — which was a popular reference for the most prestigious and highest achieving levels of entertainment during the early 1900’s.
The combination of all these influences is first revealed in Fitz Gerald’s 1924 column. Just below the column header, this short quote was published: “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.”
From there, the name entered a self-perpetuating cycle of hype — only increasing in popularity with every new use. The name inspired two clubs, a song and a dance all entitled “Big Apple,” which rose during the jazz explosion of the 1930’s. The Big Apple Club, which sat on 135th and Seventh Ave. in Harlem, was far less known for its role in the jazz movement then it was for the “Big Apple” sign that was fixed on the fake-sone exterior, which became a staple of the area and played an important role in establishing the name of the Big Apple.
The nickname then gradually fell out of use until the 1970’s, when it was revived for a Tourism Campaign spear headed by the then-president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, Charles Gillet. Popik’s research suggests that this campaign did crucial work in “eliminating the frequently lampooned nickname of the 1960s, ‘Fun City.'” In her work, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, historian and scholar Miriam Greenberg also explores this further.
Archived articles from the New York Times, published in 1975, credit the Big Apple campaign with “brightening the city’s image.” A big part of the campaign was passing out big apple stickers, which became somewhat of a “worldwide craze.” Celebrities such as Louis Rudin, Alan King, and Tom Snyder, as well as real estate and hotel executives, all jumped in the mix, and an estimated 75,000 stickers had circulated by that point.
Coming full circle with the phrase’s etymology, the 1975 New York Time’s article even quoted Gillet as having said, “The symbol has really caught on as a pleasant way of thinking of our city, which is, after all, really the big time.”