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Why is New York Called The Big Apple: 101 Guide to New York City

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Want to Know why is New York called the Big Apple?
Then, why did you wait here? Keep reading. 

New York City is by far one of the most popular cities in the world. It is often considered the bustling center of fashion, entertainment, art, tourism, and business – not to mention the fact that it is the home of the Mets baseball team!

New York City
By: GPA Photo Archive/Flickr @All Rights Reserved

If you ask anyone the top places on their bucket list, it is almost certain that New York will make an appearance, and rightly so. Following an economic and building boom during the Great Depression and the World Wars, New York City slowly rose to become one of the most – if not the most – famous cities in the world. 

It is no surprise that several nicknames accompany this level of prestige; these titles give a sense of power and glory to the cities that have earned them. From ‘The City That Never Sleeps’ to ‘Empire City,’ and arguably the most famous nickname of them all, ‘The Big Apple,’ these names clearly show the effect of New York on the world.

A nickname for a city is surely an insight into what the city offers, summed up succinctly in a title, and New York City’s monikers are no exception to this. 

Some of New York City’s nicknames are self-explanatory. Anyone who has stepped foot in New York can attest to the truth of ‘City That Never Sleeps,’ as it is a vibrant city that is teeming with life 24/7.

However, the title of the Big Apple is a little strange. We have all seen those t-shirts, caps, jewelry, and other commodities with ‘Big Apple’ emblazoned on them that tourists buy as souvenirs.

If you are like me, this will raise a question in the back of your mind – where did this fascinating nickname come from?

It is made even more unique when we consider that New York is one of the United States of America’s top apple producers, yet this has nothing to do with the origin of this nickname.

Then why is New York called the Big Apple?

The history behind this is intriguing, spanning decades and including horse races, jazz, and tourists. Interested? Well, then let’s find out why is New York called the Big Apple!

The Contribution of John J. Fitz Gerald

Now, to answer the question, why is New York called the Big Apple, lets go back in time.

The nickname ‘Big Apple’ can be accredited to, in a way, a couple of stable African-Americans. Around 1920, when the city’s horse races had a major hold on its people, John J. Fitz Gerald – a column writer for the New York Morning Telegraph – overheard the conversation of some African-American hands in New Orleans.

They talked about their aspirations of going to race on New York’s racetracks, referring to the prestigious and substantial prizes as ‘the big apple.’

It is theorized that they were most probably talking about Aqueduct, in South Ozone Park, Queens; Belmont, in Elmont Long Island; and Yonkers, which is situated north of the Bronx.

These were the three major New York City tracks and boasted great, substantial prizes for those fortunate enough to win. The stable hands said something along the lines of ‘heading’ up north to the Big Apple,’ and this euphemism for New York stuck with the sportswriter.

John later made use of this term in his horse racing column on May 3rd, 1921, with the exact usage being:

J. P. Smith, with Tippity Witchet and others of the L. T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for ‘the big apple’ to-morrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace.”

He then went on to frequently use the term in his column. It gained popularity to represent the most highly desired prizes. Little did Fitz Gerald know that he was setting into motion a series of events that would lead to New York City is referred to as the Big Apple, even in 2021 – more than a century later. 

Jazz and the Show Business

Jazz Music
By: Chris Ford/Flickr @All Rights Reserved

The story isn’t as simple as that. However – these kinds of historical backstories rarely are. There are more factors to take into account that built up this nickname. During the 1920s and 1930s, while the term ‘big apple’ was still making rounds, jazz musicians took the title under their wing.

They used it in their songs to romanticize New York. New York City was and continues to be the most rewarding platform for jazz musicians, and they began to use ‘big apple’ in their songs as a euphemism for the city. 

It is a testament to the creativity of the musicians that they took a term used in a horse racing column in an obscure newspaper and applied it to their music. There was even a saying in the show business that made use of this term.

There may be many apples on the tree, but there’s only one Big Apple – New York.’ This catchphrase, penned down decades and decades ago, still holds a special place today.

Tourism Campaign

Why is New York called the Big Apple
By: Wally Gobetz/Flickr @All Rights Reserved

Alas! The nickname had not gained the worldwide recognition it enjoys today by this point. The now-ubiquitous moniker’s path to fame was accelerated about 50 years after the New York Morning Telegraph sports writer John had included it in his article, thanks to Charles Gillett.

Charles was the president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau and just so happened to be a jazz fan. Back in the 1970s, New York was gaining infamous notoriety as a gloomy, dangerous city. The city’s reputation was attributed to the economic troubles and sky-high crime rates that had befallen New York in those times.

Next enters the successful ad campaign intended to restore New York’s former glory with the help of the title ‘Big Apple.’

Charles Gillett was aware of how jazz musicians referred to New York as the ‘big apple,’ which had stuck with him. He decided to use that as the focal point for the prosperous spring campaign and encouraged people to embrace Big Apple as an officially recognized nod to New York.

Merchandise such as pins, stickers, and shirts was designed and printed with ‘Big Apple.’ This, along with the help of celebrities like Dave DeBusschere (former New York Knicks player), all played a role in the revamping of New York City and enticed visitors to come and ‘take a bite out of the big apple.’ 

The nickname gained a lot of traction, in part due to the efforts of volunteers who passed out real, bright red apples to visitors on the city’s streets and the many New York businesses who used an apple for their logo.

Suffice it to say, the ad campaign was a huge success, and citizens and tourists officially adopted ‘Big Apple’ as an endearing nickname for New York. It was a stroke of genius from Charles’ side to use a nickname to redesign a city and attract tourists, but it paid off.

Well, now you are getting the idea of why New York is called the Big Apple. But hold on, there’s more. 

Earliest Use of ‘Big Apple’

The big apple corner
By: Sjoerd van Oosten/Flickr @All Rights Reserved

Later, in 1997, the street that Fitz Gerald had called home for 30 years – the corner of 54th and Broadway – was renamed ‘Big Apple Corner’ in recognition of the man who set all this into motion.

However, it’s a little-known fact that the first reference to New York as the ‘big apple’ was used just over a decade before Fitz Gerald’s column.

In the book The Wayfarer in New York, the author Edward Martin wrote, “Kansas is apt to see a greedy city in New York a greedy city… It inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.”

While this was part of an extended metaphor and not the coinage of the later nickname, it is still intriguing. 

While calling New York the Big Apple is now as familiar a nickname as our friends, could you imagine calling it New Orange? That was almost the case in 1673, centuries before the ‘Big Apple’ came into the picture.

The Dutch captured New York, and to pay homage to William III of Orange, and they decided to call the place New Orange. Thankfully, the British regained control of New York and reinstated its proper name only a year later. 

On February 18th, 1924, John J. Fitz Gerald explained the term in a column titled ‘Around the Big Apple’ for the New York Morning Telegraph. Gerald began every column with the same header:

“The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.”

Even though Fitz Gerald’s audience wasn’t vast, and he had used the term about horse racing, ‘Big Apple’ became synonymous with the best of the best. This simple fact ensures that this moniker is perfectly apt for the populous city and will be used with great enthusiasm for years to come.

It’s always fascinating to see how we’ve accepted things into our daily routine, like nicknames, which can have such a vivid history behind them.

Next time you’re at a party, be sure to pull out this fun fact and entertain your friends with the story of how New York came to be called the Big Apple!

I hope you found out the history behind why is New York called the Big Apple, pretty interesting. 

The next time someone asks you why is New York called the Big Apple, I hope you give the right answer with the help of this article. 

Want to read more about New York? Check out 15+ Best NYC Quotes For You!

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