Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.”
Some claim that it originated from the once wealthy family who sold apples on the city’s streets during the Great Depression to survive.
Another one is said to have originated from Eve, a famous brothel madam of the 19th century, whose girls were humorously referred to as her “Big Apples.”
But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.”
He began each column with the heading “The Big Apple” on February 18, 1924. The dream of all horsemen and the goal of every youngster who has ever thrown a leg over a thoroughbred. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.”
At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple,” which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.
Two African American stable hands at the renowned New Orleans Fair Grounds are said to have used the term “The Big Apple” for New York’s racetracks for the first time, as Fitz Gerald detailed in his first “Around the Big Apple” column:
Once “The Big Apple” became a part of culture up north, it progressively gained appeal outside of the context of horse racing, and everything from Harlem nightclubs to popular songs and dances about the city were given the moniker.
The moniker was most significantly spread outside of the northeast by New York jazz musicians in the 1930s, who had a tendency of using it to allude to their birthplace in their tunes.
It remained New York City’s name throughout the middle of the 20th century until it was formally adopted by the city in the 1970s.