New York is a city of nicknames. The City That Never Sleeps, Empire City, The City So Nice They Named It Twice… and of course Gotham, which we’ve covered before. Today let’s just look at the Big Apple.
Before it became a moniker for the city, “big apple” had other meanings. Throughout the nineteenth century, the term meant “something regarded as the most significant of its kind; an object of desire and ambition.” To “bet a big apple” was “to state with supreme assurance; to be absolutely confident of” [Oxford English Dictionary]. The term was popular enough that you see several nods to the colloquialism in the reporting of literally large apples. For example, the Portland Advertiser reports in 1840:
Or the Boston Evening Transcript in 1842:
Here the Commercial Advertiser places the term in quotes, possibly to highlight it in light of its common use (1848).
There are also plenty of examples of wagering or betting a big apple as a sure thing in newspapers in the 1800s. This one is from the Salem Register:
Another example from the Boston Daily Globe is an 1891 advertisement which read, “We will wager a big red apple that the prices attached to our thousand and one styles are as low or lower than the same quality of goods can be bought elsewhere.” Dozens of references to big apples and betting big apples can be found by searching digitized newspapers in Proquest Historical Newspapers, Chronicling America, and America’s Historical Newspapers.
The Oxford English Dictionary also reports its first known inference of New York in this context in 1909. Used only to imply a big and important place, “the big apple city” in context just happens to be New York. From Edward Martin’s introduction in the Wayfarer in New York: “It [sc. the Mid-West] inclines to think that the big apple [sc. New York] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.” The editors of the OED actually address the early usage, “which, though referring to New York, is part of an extended metaphor and appears to be an isolated use.” A look at Martin’s text offers greater context. He discussed the perception of New York City from other parts of the United States with an extended metaphor as though it were the fruit of a tree of which other “lesser fruits” are jealous and embittered.
So why are apples so special in the 1800s? In Origin of New York City's nickname "The Big Apple", author Gerald Leonard Cohen explains that “nowadays apples seem to be regarded as just another fruit, neither more nor less special than pears, grapefruits, etc. However, in the 19th and presumably the early 20th century a big red apple was apparently something of special desirability,” such as the gift of an apple for a teacher as a sign of flattery. Indeed, this is true. Brooklyn Botanic Garden explains how the 19th century was the golden age of the apple: “an era known to fruit historians as the golden age of American pomology, a period running from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson to the Wright brothers' liftoff at Kitty Hawk. It was a time of unparalleled public interest in new fruit varieties, when apples, pears, and peaches were critically reviewed and rated with the enthusiasm now reserved for Hollywood movies and popular music.” Americans were seeing more apples than ever at the market and bigger, tastier specimens at that.
The “Big Apple” as a nickname for New York City really takes hold in the 1920s jazz era. The term, already in popular meaning as betting on a sure thing, makes its way to racetracks in the early 1920s. John J. Fitz Gerald, a reporter who wrote a regular racing column in the New York Morning Telegraph, referred to the New York racing circuit as the Big Apple—a proper noun. He is credited for popularizing the term, and in 1924 he wrote, “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.” Fitz Gerald’s racing term complies with the original slang definition in his usage, since he is certainly expressing that he thinks the races are to be regarded as the most significant of their kind. Fitz Gerald titled the column “Around the Big Apple.”
Within the same decade, usage of the term shows up in other papers, often meaning the city of New York and not just its racing circuits. Chicago Defender, 1922: “I trust your trip to the ‘big apple’ was a huge success…” and the New York Times uses it for the first time in an article about the slang that motion picture industry men use called “Slang of Film Men,” published March 11, 1928.
The term was popular amongst jazz musicians, and in Origin of New York City's nickname "The Big Apple", Cohen explains that when Charles Gillett, president of the non-profit New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, took interest in the phrase in the 1970s, he was inspired by its jazz connotations. Gillett ran a tourism campaign to invite tourists to New York in an era when the city’s reputation was dominated by crime, bankruptcy, and middle class flight to the suburbs. The New York Times explains in his obituary:
Skyline from World Trade Center looking north with closer view of Empire State Building, circa 1980. Image ID: ps_lhg_151
“But perhaps his greatest success came with turning the term "Big Apple" into a tourist draw. A jazz fan, he remembered that musicians in the 1920s and '30s had an expression for playing the big time after gigs in one-horse towns: "There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City, you pick the Big Apple."
Gillett enlisted local celebrities to promote NYC, made Big Apple stickers and pins, and successfully recruited large organizations to bring their conventions to the city. When he retired, he received a New York State Governor's Award, with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo citing Gillett's "long and distinguished service in promoting New York as the premier travel destination in the world," and for moving the bureau into the front ranks of local travel promotion agencies. By the time he passed away in the 1990s, Gillett was celebrated for his role in changing public opinion about visiting and living in NYC. The Big Apple campaign was successfully counter partnered with other 1970s publicity such as William Doyle and Milton Glaser’s “I Love New York” campaign. A Google Ngram of the term “Big Apple” shows the growth of the term’s usage, as well as its resurgence in the 1970s and continual rise since Gillett’s campaign.
For more background on New York as the Big Apple see Origin of New York City's nickname "The Big Apple", and Barry Popik’s Big Apple website.