One of the most common questions we get from readers is why is New York City called the Big Apple? Interestingly, that question seems to come from people who don’t live in New York City. Most of us who live in New York City like myself never really give it much of a thought. Unless, you’re a New York Mets fan, because that big red shiny apple that pops up in centerfield at Citi Field means one of your beloved Mets just hit a homerun. Nonetheless, it’s just like the other common questions that New Yorkers get about what it’s like to visit the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Well, sorry most of us never go to those spots, but we can tell you where to get the best slice of Pizza (Sal’s Pizza on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx). Fortunately, as an historian, the question as to why we are called the Big Apple has piqued my curiosity in the past. After doing much research, it seems there are many reasons why New York City is called the Big Apple. Every New York historian will argue for one reason more than another because that’s what historians do. Yet, the simple fact is the answer to the question why New York City Is Called The Big Apple starts a long time ago…..a really long time ago.
The Popularity of the Apple
In the modern world of 2021 Apples are a dime a dozen, well maybe not a dime, especially with this crazy inflation going on, but I think you get the point. Apples are cheap. They are also not that big of a deal anymore in the grocery store. Apples are stuck between the very popular avocados, mangos and other popular fruit. Yet, there was a time when the Apple was the shining star of fruits. However, before it was the big kid on the block, it was most definitely the most forbidden as anyone knows from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Why was it so forbidden? Well because God said it was according to the Bible.(There is debate over it actually being an apple as the Old Testament states it as an unspecified fruit) Nonetheless, most people believe it was an apple. The Apple forbidden fruit lingo would change later on as the Apple lost its bad reputation of having screwed everything up and became one of the most cherished fruits in the world.
The country of Kazakhstan is supposedly the area of the world in which the Apple originated. Its popularity would spread across Asia and Europe through the Silk Road. Its powerful nutritional value would spark it’s use in famous stories like The Arabian Nites that featured an Apple of such extreme power that could cure anyone from illness. The apple was put on a pedestal above all other fruits. An apple symbolised the best. Starting to get the point?
Bet A Big Apple!
Since history defines an apple as the best of the rest, that symbolism becomes important in the way writers over the past hundred years and more began using the term apple in describing certain events and places; specifically New York City. The connections between the two must be made. The term “bet a big apple,” began appearing in various newspapers around the United States in the 1800s. Betting a big apple proved the apple symbolism as big value. It’s value was so large that no one would risk betting a big apple if there weren’t a hundred percent sure they would win the bet.
There are various instances in New York History where we begin to see the connections between the value of the Apple and its role to describe the city of New York. Some argue that the mention of the Big Apple appeared first in the 1909 book “The Wayfarer in New York. However, Barry Popik co-author of the book Origin of New York City’s Nickname “The Big Apple” argues that Edward Martin who wrote The Wayfarer in New York was only using the term “big apple,” as a metaphor. Edward Martin never mentions the term again in the book. Multiple times, Edward Martin would instead refer to New York City as “Gotham”and not “The Big Apple.” Thanks to Barry Popik for clearing that up. However what we must remember is that not everyone is a scholar or reads an entire text so just the mention of the term “big apple,” in a popular text can often lead to the spread of the use in popular culture even if it was not the author’s original intent.
It’s in 1920 where we begin to see clear connections between the term “big apple,” and New York City. Once again, the term “big apple “being used in a betting sense as a sure thing comes into play. Horse Racing had always been a very popular sport in New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries. Race tracks were filled until OTB opened up in the 1970s and began dispersing the crowds from tracks like Belmont, Aqueduct, Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers into the the OTB betting parlors. In 1920, journalist John J. Fitz Gerald who wrote a racing column for the New York Newspaper New York Morning Telegraph, began using the term Big Apple when writing about the New York City race tracks. It was in New York where the tracks featured the best purses which would then attract the best horses leading to the best racing in the nation. One must remember this was New York City in the roaring 1920s. Horseplayers read that column religiously. Horse players included other journalists and reporters from other papers. Soon the term The Big Apple began to spread being used in papers like the New York Times and others around the country. Everyone read newspapers back in the 1920s. Radio and newspapers were the form of communication that people used for news, scores and best bets if you know what I mean.
It wasn’t just the use of the term Big Apple in print that spruned people on using it. The term supposedly began being utilized by musicians who would brag about playing gigs in New York City. However the musicians I know including myself really never cared too much about the location of a gig, we just cared that we were getting paid. It probably was the same back in the 1920s especially for jazz musicians. The same characterization was probably used by other artists or perhaps anyone moving into a city beginning to be known as the Big Apple.
Slang terms come and go over time. However the term the Big Apple was utilized in the early 1970s by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau to help promote tourism in New York City. The city in the 1970s was a far different place from what it had become in the 21s century. There were no men and women in Spiderman costumes taking pictures with tourists for twenty bucks in Times Square. The women and even men in Times Square in the 1970s had a far different agenda when trying to make twenty bucks off pedestrians. Nonetheless, the Big Apple name really became cemented as New York City’s permanent nickname when Charles Gillett, who was the president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau started the “Come Take a Bite Out Of The Big Apple,” campaign in 1971. From that point on New York City has become known to people around the world as The Big Apple Those are all the reasons why New York City is called “The Big Apple.” You can bet on it!
Rupp, R. (2021, May 3). The history of the “forbidden” fruit. Culture. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/history-of-apples
(www.dw.com), D. W. (n.d.). Forbidden fruit: The curious early history of Apples: DW: 31.05.2019. DW.COM. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/forbidden-fruit-the-curious-early-history-of-apples/a-48967024
Nigro, C. (2018, September 20). Why is New York City called The Big Apple? The New York Public Library. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/03/11/nyc-big-apple
Cohen, G. L., & Popik, B. A. (2011). Origin of New York City’s nickname “The big apple”. Lang.