New York, the most populous city in the United States, has been given many nicknames, including The City That Never Sleeps, Empire City, and Gotham—but perhaps the most famous one of all is the Big Apple.
The nickname “The Big Apple” originated in the 1920s in reference to the prizes (or “big apples”) rewarded at the many racing courses in and around New York City. However, it wasn’t officially adopted as the city’s nickname until 1971 as the result of a successful ad campaign intended to attract tourists. Throughout its history, the term “big apple” has always come down to simply mean the best and biggest of places to be, and New York City has long lived up to its nickname. Once you visit this seven-mile-long city, you’ll truly understand why it’s called the Capital of the World and the Big Apple.
The Big Reward: From Racing to Jazz The first mention of New York City as “The Big Apple” was in the 1909 book “The Wayfarer in New York.” In the introduction, Edward Martin writes about the dynamic between NYC and the Midwest, using the apple as an extended metaphor: “New York is 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 tree has no great degree of affection for its fruit. It inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap. It is disturbed by the enormous drawing power of a metropolis which constantly attracts to itself wealth and its possessors from all the lesser centers of the land. Every city, every State pays an annual tribute of men and of business to New York, and no State or city likes particularly to do it.”
The term only started gaining traction when sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald began writing about the city’s horse races for the New York Morning Telegraph. In his column, he wrote that these were “the big apples” of competitive racing in the United States. Fitz Gerald got the term from African American stable hands in New Orleans; jockeys and trainers who aspired to race on New York City tracks referred to the money prizes as the “Big Apple. He once explained the term in an article for the Morning Telegraph: “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.”
Although the audience for Fitz Gerald’s articles was markedly smaller than most, the concept of “big apple” representing the best of the best—or most-sought-after of rewards or accomplishments—began to popularize across the country. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the nickname started to become well known outside of the northeast, as New York City’s jazz musicians began referring to New York City as the “Big Apple” in their songs. An old saying in show business was “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple.” New York City was (and is) the premier place for jazz musicians to perform, which made it more common to refer to New York City as the Big Apple.
Walter Winchell and other writers continued to use the term in the 1940s and early 1950s, but by the late 1950s, if it was known at all, it had come to be considered an outdated nickname for New York. In the early 1970s, however, during the city’s fiscal crisis, “People were looking around desperately and some of themnseized that old phrase the Big Apple to remind people of when New York had been a strong and powerful city and might become that again,” according to the official Manhattan Borough Historian, Dr. Robert Snyder.
It was then that the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau – now NYC & Company, New York City’s official marketing and tourism organization) – with the help of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm, began to promote the city’s “Big Apple” nickname to tourists, under the leadership of its president, Charles Gillett. The campaign was a success, and the nickname has remained popular since then.