New York City hasn't always been called the Big Apple. (For that matter, it hasn't always been New York City either. What's up, New Amsterdam?) But it does seem like a weird nickname for a metropolis that's not particularly known for its orchards. So where did that nickname come from?
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In the 1920s, there was a reporter for the New York Morning Telegraph who covered horse racing, named John Fitz Gerald (sometimes spelled FitzGerald), as Barry Popik, Gerald Cohen and others have since noted. While there were several famous tracks in New York City, some of the best race horses came from the New Orleans area. Fitz Gerald heard stable hands referring to the races in New York, and their prestige and prize money, as the big apple of horse racing. Fitz Gerald found the term apt and started using it regularly in his columns on racing.
Jazz It Up
The term Big Apple took off outside of horse racing circles, with jazz musicians – especially those in Harlem – calling the city by the nickname. It had the same meaning for musicians as it had for horse racers: There were a lot of small-time racetracks and jazz clubs all over America that might be the small apples, but the fame and fortune to be found in New York was the big apple.
In the 1930s, there was a club in Harlem and a dance called "The Big Apple" that was performed in a group. In this YouTube clip from 1937, The Big Apple dance looks both exhausting and extremely fun to do:
As the Worm Turns
By the 1950s, the nickname had mostly petered out. And by the 1970s, few people were calling New York City anything but rotten. Crime was high, and people were broke. It was hardly a shiny, bright apple calling to people outside the city to come visit and take a bite.
So the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, under the lead of Charles Gillett, started an ad campaign to revitalize the city's reputation as the Big Apple. Gillett was a jazz fan, and he associated the name with that promise of glamour. The campaign worked, and the city has embraced the nickname ever since.