The Big Apple: How NYC Got Its Name

Downtown New York City
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New York, 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.

Street signs at the corner of Broadway and 54th Street in New York City identify the streets' official and honorary names.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images 

A Bad Reputation for the Big Apple

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York City was quickly earning a national reputation as a dark and dangerous city. To increase tourism to New York City in 1971, the city launched an ad campaign with Charles Gillett, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, at the helm. A fan of jazz, he wanted to restore the city to its former glory by adopting the Big Apple as an officially recognized reference to New York City.

The campaign featured red apples in an effort to lure visitors to New York City. The red apples, intended to serve as a bright and cheery image of the city, would stand in contrast to the common belief that New York City was riddled with crime and poverty. T-shirts, pins, and stickers promoting the "Big Apple" quickly became popular, thanks in part to the help of celebrities like New York Knicks legend Dave DeBusschere—and the city welcomed tourists to "take a bite out of the Big Apple."

Since the conclusion of the campaign—and subsequent "rebranding" of the city—New York City has officially been nicknamed The Big Apple. In recognition of Fitz Gerald, the corner of 54th and Broadway (where Fitz Gerald lived for 30 years) was renamed "Big Apple Corner" in 1997.

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