While some have posited that the nickname stems from New York’s identity as America’s second top apple producer, the moniker is actually rooted farther in history. In the 19th century, the term “big apple” was used to refer to desirable objects, an expression born from fruit vendors’ strategy of placing larger apples at the “top of the barrel.” From these markets the phrase traveled to a New Orleans horse track, where journalist John J. FitzGerald heard African-American stable hands refer to New York’s racing industry as “the big apple.” The New York Morning Telegraph writer would go on to bring the term north with him, inadvertently shaping New York history in the process.
Beginning in 1924, FitzGerald’s horse racing column was consumed across the nation. Its title? “Around the Big Apple.” In the context of the sport, the phrase was used to refer to everything from big-money prizes won at the area’s larger races to New York itself. Ubiquitous as it was, the term spread naturally beyond the confines of racing and into city scenes.
New York’s party set adopted the phrase, using it for popular Harlem nightclubs and in smash songs and dance crazes. Occurring in the 1930s, this coincided with jazz’s cross-continental takeover. References of local crooners to their “Big Apple” hometown helped solidify the label around the world.
The story doesn’t stop there. Decades later, in the 1970s, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau would embrace the phrase as an official city nickname. Faced with a dwindling tourism economy, the bureau’s president (and jazz enthusiast) Charles Gillett hoped the name would help sweeten New York’s fast-souring image. Visitors from all over flocked to the city in the following years, clamoring for a bite of the Big Apple.
Finally, in 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani honored FitzGerald for his contribution, christening the street where he had lived with his family “Big Apple Corner.” Nearly a century later, New York is known worldwide by this delicious nickname, proving that back in the ’20s the city landed a “big apple” indeed.