"When and how did New York City come to be called "The Big Apple'?"
This is by far the most frequently asked question—and the most hotly debated—to reach our New York History Hotline.
There are actually several answers (nothing about New York City is simple, after all). All are explained below, with the last word going, appropriately enough, to SNYCH’s own Joe Zito, one of this burg’s finest purveyors of high-quality urban history. A veteran both of New York City’s inimitable press corps and its police department, Joe—happily for us—is able to provide authoritative first-hand testimony on this topic. Read on!
Various accounts have traced the “Big Apple” expression to Depression-Era sidewalk apple vendors, a Harlem night club, and a popular 1930s dance known as the “Big Apple.” One fanciful version even linked the name with a notorious 19th- century procuress!
In fact, it was the jazz musicians of the 1930s and ‘40s who put the phrase into more or less general circulation. If a jazzman circa 1940 told you he had a gig in the “Big Apple,” you knew he had an engagement to play in the most coveted venue of all, Manhattan, where the audience was the biggest, hippest, and most appreciative in the country.
The older generation of jazzmen specifically credit Fletcher Henderson, one of the greatest of the early Big Band leaders and arrangers, with popularizing it, but such things are probably impossible to document. Be that as it may, the ultimate source actually was not the jazz world, but the racetrack.
As Damon Runyon (among many others) cheerfully pointed out, New York in those days offered a betting man a lot of places to go broke. There were no fewer than four major tracks nearby, and it required no fewer than three racing journals to cover such a lively scene—The Daily Racing Form (which still survives on newsstands today) and The Running Horse and The New York Morning Telegraph (which do not)—and the ultimate credit for marrying New York to its durable catchphrase goes to columnist John J. FitzGerald, who wrote for the Telegraph for over 20 years.
Joe Zito, who joined the paper as a young man some 70-plus years ago, recently reminisced about Jack Fitzgerald and his times.
In FitzGerald’s honor (and due largely to the strenuous efforts of attorney-etymologist Barry Popick, who, like the columnist, immigrated to NYC from upstate New York) a street sign reading “Big Apple Corner” was installed at Broadway and West 54th Street in 1997, near the hotel where FitzGerald died in poverty in 1963—although a location near the old Telegraph office might arguably have been a happier spot for it.
Despite its turf-related origins, by the 1930s and ’40s, the phrase had become firmly linked to the city’s jazz scene. “Big Apple” was the name both of a popular night club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem and a jitterbug-style group dance that originated in the South, became a huge phenomenon at Harlem’s great Savoy Ballroom and rapidly spread across the country. (Neat cultural footnote: the great African-American cinema pioneer Oscar Micheaux liked to use the Big Apple as a venue for occasional screenings of his latest feature film or documentary.)
A film short called The Big Apple came out in 1938, with an all- Black cast featuring Herbert “Whitey” White’s Lindy Hoppers, Harlem’s top ballroom dancers in the Swing Era. In a book published the same year, bandleader Cab Calloway used the phrase "Big Apple" to mean "the big town, the main stem, Harlem." Anyone who loved the city would have readily agreed with Jack FitzGerald: “There's only one Big Apple. That's New York."
The term had grown stale and was in fact generally forgotten by the 1970s. Then Charles Gillett, head of the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, got the idea of reviving it. The agency was desperately trying to attract tourists to the town Mayor John Lindsay had dubbed “Fun City,” but which had become better-known for its blackouts, strikes, street crime and occasional riots. What could be a more wholesome symbol of renewal than a plump red apple?
The city's industrial-strength “I ♥ NY” campaign was launched toward the end of the Lindsay administration in 1971, complete with a cheerful Big Apple logo in innumerable forms (lapel pins, buttons, bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, shopping bags, ashtrays, ties, tie tacks, “Big Apple” T-shirts, etc.).
Apparently Gillett was on to something, because at this writing, over 35 years later, the campaign he launched—it won him a Tourism Achievement award in 1994, by the way—is still going strong.
“In the early 1930s I got my first job as a rewrite man and a copy reader for the Morning Telegraph. The Telegraph at that time was situated on West 24th Street, and the site is now part of the parking lot of the huge Penn South complex.
John FitzGerald—we called him Jack—was the feature writer for the paper, and he covered the races in New York State. At that time, in addition to Belmont Park and Aqueduct, there was Jamaica Race Track, the Empire City Track up in Yonkers [now Yonkers Raceway], and of course Saratoga.
Jack was the first writer to use the term ‘The Big Apple’ in print, maybe ten years before I started at the paper—in fact, he called his regular column ‘Around the Big Apple.’ He told us that he had heard it from the Black stable boys at who followed the horses to the small quarter-mile tracks in New Orleans and all over the East and the Middle West.
They were so glad now to come to New York, where the big money was. The city was so huge to them and so full of opportunity that they called it the ‘Big Apple.’”
Best known today as Benny Goodman’s finest arranger, Fletcher Henderson was a great bandleader in his own right and probably the man who did most to put the “Big Apple” nickname into wide circulation.
A group dance called the Big Apple was popular in the era of the Shag and the Lindy Hop. A whimsical sign (below) still marks the site of the Big Apple club at W. 135th St. and Seventh Avenue.
Turf scribe Jack FitzGerald (below, left) dubbed his long- running column “Around the Big Apple”; by his own account, he’d borrowed the term from “two dusky stable hands” overheard after a race at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.