New York City, one of the most well-known cities in the world, has been given many nicknames throughout its history. I recently read that number is up to 98. Among the most famous ones are The City That Never Sleeps, Capital of The World, Gotham, and Empire City.
These nicknames are certainly fitting, but my favorite has always been “The Big Apple.”
Embarrassingly I did not know where this nickname originated and what it meant.
Why was New York City called the Big Apple? And what does my hometown have to do with apples? I wondered.
I conducted a little research and this is what I learned.
NYC was dubbed the Big Apple in the 1920s by John J. Fitz Gerald, a sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph. He used the term as part of an article about horse racing, and it caught on from there. And before this, NYC was already called a “Big Apple” in a book from the turn of the 20th century.
Where The Name Big Apple Came From
Edward S. Martin is often credited as the person who coined the term “Big Apple”, although it was more of a metaphor as opposed to an actual nickname.
In the 1909 book by Martin entitled The Wayfarer in New York a line appears where the state of Kansas considers New York City a “big apple.”
Here, the big apple is a metaphor for something that catches your eyes.
New York City, being a famous city and all, had thousands heading to the city during the 19th and 20th centuries.
To the point, that other cities and states were jealous that it was getting all the attention such as a big apple on the shelf.
Now, this is where the name first started, and like I said it was a metaphor.
The one who originally started calling New York City “The Big Apple” as an affectionate nickname was John J. Fitz Gerald.
A horse racing correspondent for the New York Morning Telegraph, Gerald allegedly overheard two African-American stable hands at a race track in New Orleans call New York City “The Big Apple”.
He began to call it by that name as early as 1921 in his articles, and it just so happened to stick.
There is no evidence that Gerald had ever read The Wayfarer in New York or if the stable hands read the book either.
Didn’t New York Get The Nickname Due To A Brothel?
History is full of embellished stories, or alternative stories that are changed to fit a narrative.
Such is the case with Mlle. Evelyn Claudine de Saint-Évremond.
Having arrived in America in either 1803 or 1804, she was well regarded for her beauty, her wit, and it was quick for her to become a socialite.
She was even rumored to have been friends with the late Marie Antoinette!
After a failed marriage with John Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, Evelyn set up a saloon that was, in reality, a brothel in New York City.
Employing fresh girls from London and Paris, she picked only the best to come off the ships like a farmer would pick the biggest apples first.
Soon a common joke formed where well-to-do men would get a taste of “Eve’s Apples”.
The biblical reference didn’t go over Evelyn’s head, and she enjoyed these jokes and the idea that she was tempting “Adams” with her “apples”.
As the late 18th century gave rise to more conservative movements, many writers of the era were quick to call New York City the “rotten apple”.
On the outside, this “big apple” looked fresh and clean, but inside it was nothing but rot.
In this case, a rot of morals and society, not so much with construction.
By the 20th century, the name big apple stuck with New Yorkers, and regardless of the moral or social decay, or actual building decay, that critics went to lengths to talk about didn’t bother them in the slightest.
A fitting story, don’t you think? Much more interesting than someone overhearing the words big apple and throwing it in a newspaper article.
The story of Mlle. Evelyn Claudine de Saint-Évremond is just that, a story. She never existed, nor her brothel, nor did anyone go around calling prostitutes apples.
It was all a fabrication of one Peter Salwen, a member of the Society for New York City History.
In 1995 he wrote online this story as a fascinating tale of sex and love to explain why and how New York City got its nickname.
Because it was the early days of the internet, people believed this tale. Resulting in many to this day believing the nickname came from a brothel.
It certainly doesn’t help that for over a decade this story would be the first result in search engines like Google.
With a little digging, the true story could be found even back in the 1990s, but it certainly wasn’t as interesting.
What About Actual Apple Picking?
Historically, apple orchards were a common sight around New York City. Even today you can find apple orchards around NYC and the tri-state area.
In the summer months, normally around August and September, apples are right for picking. Including nice, big apples that are just plump and sweet!
The nickname never came from apple pickers, as even during the early 20th century New York City was never known for apple production.
As New York City is a northern city, its economy came through manufacturing and not farming, unlike southern cities.
While New York City needed farms to feed its growing population, the actual trade of the city came with merchants, whalers, and even a very large slave trade despite New York having abolished slavery in the 1820s.
All and all, apple picking had a very small impact on the economy of New York City.
When New York Was The New Orange And The Dutch Were Scammed
History is certainly interesting, as we’ve discussed, so did you know New York was originally “The New Orange” and once held a name similar to a famous city today?
The first European to see what would today become New York City was Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. Before him, the Lenape people had been living in the area for hundreds of years.
When the Dutch surveyed the area in the early 17th century, they found plenty of beavers. The Beaver was very fashionable in Europe, to the point that the Eurasian Beaver was nearly hunted to extinction.
In 1614, the first Dutch fur trading posts were set up in what is today Albany, and in 1624 the first settlers to what is today Governor’s Island arrived.
As a fortress was being built to protect the Dutch population, and African slaves were imported for labor, the director-general of the colony by the name of Peter Minuit was tasked with securing the investment of the colony that was being called New Amsterdam.
The colonists were Dutch, after all, so why not name their new colony after one of their old cities?
According to legend, Minuit was able to buy Manhattan from the local Lenape people with glass beads valued at only twenty-four dollars.
Like Miss Eve and her apples, this is a story of fiction and in reality, Minuit worked out a deal with a local Canarse chief for trade goods worth over one thousand dollars, or 60 guilders.
Guilders were the Dutch currency at the time.
While the Canarse were all too happy to take these trade goods, it wasn’t because they were being scammed and were ignorant.
Instead, they didn’t even live in Manhattan, another rival tribe was. The Weckquaesgeeks were the ones who technically owned Manhattan, and weren’t so pleased that a rival tribe sold their land.
Not helping matters, either way, was the Lenape who didn’t have an idea of land ownership like the Europeans.
To them, the Dutch just gave them good stuff to use the land for a bit. For the Lenape, they understood sharing land, but not owning it.
This misunderstanding led to countless conflicts and the loss of millions over the coming century.
On the European front, England and the Dutch Republic would engage in three conflicts during the 17th century over trade and control of the seas.
During the lull after the first war, four English warships sailed into New Amsterdam and demanded the Dutch surrender.
Unable to fight back, the director-general was forced to surrender and this sparked the second Anglo-Dutch war.
The second war, which lasted from 1665 to 1667 saw the English capture New Amsterdam and proudly named it “New York” after the Duke of York, now known as King James II.
The Dutch would be back, and in 1673 they captured New York and decided to call it “New Orange”, after William III of Orange.
The war didn’t go in favor of the Dutch, who were forced to return the colony back and it was again renamed “New York”.
New York City, and the state of New York, have a very fascinating history that is sadly obscured in tall tales and legend.
While history can be sometimes disappointing, such as answering why is New York City called the Big Apple with the answer “because someone who wrote about horse races said so”, this doesn’t mean history is always dull or uninteresting.
Final Thoughts – Why is NYC Called the Big Apple?
And such is the case with New York City. The Big Apple got its name because of Gerald, yes, but what made the name stick was the millions living in the city who viewed their home as the apple of their eye. This remains true for the millions of New Yorkers to this day. Be it The City That Never Sleeps, Empire City, or The Big Apple, New York is home to millions like me and I’m sure we wouldn’t change that for the world.