Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are several possible answers to this question and we have to take a closer look at each before we can make our own minds up as to why New York is called the Big Apple.
In 1909 Edward S Martin wrote in his book, The Wayfarer in New York – “New York was merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley, and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other. But the Big Apple (New York) gets a disproportionate share of the national sap”.
The origin of New York City’s nickname, the “Big Apple,” can be traced back to the early 20th century. It was primarily popularized by African American jazz musicians and horse racing enthusiasts before gaining widespread recognition.
One theory suggests that the term was first used in the 1920s by African American musicians who referred to New York City as the “Big Apple” because it was considered the ultimate destination for jazz performers. The city’s jazz clubs and venues offered lucrative opportunities and a thriving music scene, making it the “biggest apple” in terms of career prospects and success.
The phrase was also used in other walks of life, for example, a newspaper sports writer John J. FitzGerald heard it and called his racing column ‘Around the Big Apple’.
In the 1920s, there was a famous horse racing track in New York City called the New York Hippodrome. A writer for the New York Morning Telegraph, John J. Fitz Gerald, overheard stable boys using the term “Big Apple” to describe the city’s racing circuit. Fitz Gerald started using the phrase in his columns to refer to New York City, associating it with the richest and most prestigious horse races, which attracted the best horses and jockeys.
In Spanish, the word Manzana can mean ‘block’ (a small section of a town or city) or ‘apple’. So when immigrants referred to New York as ‘the Big Block’, people thought they were calling it the ‘Big Apple’.
The term gained further prominence when Charles Gillett, a writer for the New York Morning Telegraph, started using it in his column regularly. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term became widely recognized and popularized, thanks to a marketing campaign by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The bureau aimed to promote tourism and change the negative perceptions associated with the city during a period of economic decline. To achieve this, they launched the “Big Apple” campaign in 1971, using the nickname to highlight the vibrancy, cultural richness, and limitless opportunities that New York City had to offer.
The campaign employed various media platforms, including print ads, TV commercials, and promotional materials, to showcase New York as an exciting and dynamic destination. With the help of the “I Love New York” slogan and the iconic apple logo, the campaign successfully rejuvenated the city’s image, attracting tourists and reigniting pride among its residents.
Since then, the nickname “Big Apple” has become deeply ingrained in popular culture and synonymous with New York City. It represents the city’s larger-than-life persona, its status as a global metropolis, and its immense cultural, economic, and artistic significance. Today, the term continues to be embraced and celebrated as a symbol of New York City’s enduring allure and indomitable spirit.
Feature image “New York City Skyline from Top of Empire State Building” by jody.claborn is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.