Why Is New York City Called "The Big Apple"?

Why Is New York City
Called "The Big Apple"?


"When and how did New York City come to be called "The Big Apple'?"

This is by far the most frequently asked question submitted to our New York History Hotline.

In popular folklore, the name is usually traced to early jazz musicians or long-ago sports figures. Often, the explanation of the so-called "origin" of this phrase is accompanied with plausible-sounding historical or biographical details, giving it an unmistakable (but alas, totally spurious) "ring of truth."

Because this question continues to excite curiosity, and because the real facts are quite well known to serious historians, we provide the following authoritative account, based on our unique archival sources. The story may disappoint some readers -- truth, after all, is often less colorful than fiction. But facts are facts.


In the early years of the nineteenth century, refugees from war-torn Europe began arriving in New York in great numbers. Many were remnants of the crumbling French aristocracy, forced to seek refuge abroad from the dread "Monsieur Guillotine." Arriving here without funds or friends, many of these were forced to survive, as one contemporary put it, "by their wits or worse."

One of these, arriving in late 1803 or early 1804, was Mlle. Evelyn Claudine de Saint-√Čvremond. Daughter of a noted courtier, wit, and litt√©rateur, and herself a favorite of Marie Antoinette, Evelyn was by all accounts remarkably attractive: beautiful, vivacious, and well-educated, and she was soon a society favorite. For reasons never disclosed, however, a planned marriage the following year to John Hamilton, son of the late Alexander Hamilton, was called off at the last minute. Soon after, with support from several highly placed admirers, she established a salon -- in fact, a brothel -- in a substantial house that still stands at 42 Bond Street, then one of the city's most exclusive residential districts.

Evelyn's establishment quickly won, and for several decades maintained, a formidable reputation as the most entertaining and discreet of the city's many "temples of love," a place not only for lovemaking, but also for elegant dinners, high-stakes gambling, and witty conversation. The girls, many of them fresh arrivals from Paris or London, were noted for their beauty and bearing. More than a few of them, apparently, were actually able to secure wealthy husbands from among the establishment's clientele.

When New Yorkers insisted on anglicizing her name to "Eve," Evelyn apparently found the biblical reference highly amusing, and for her part would refer to the temptresses in her employ as "my irresistable apples." The young men-about-town soon got into the habit of referring to their amorous adventures as "having a taste of Eve's Apples." This knowing phrase established the speaker as one of the "in" crowd, and at the same time made it clear he had no need to visit one of the coarser establishments that crowded nearby Mercer Street, for instance. The enigmatic reference in Philip Hone's famous diary to "Ida, sweet as apple cider" (October 4, 1838) has been described as an oblique reference to a visit to what had by then become a notorious but cherished civic institution.

The rest, as they say, is etymological history.

The sexual connotation of the word "apple" was well known in New York and throughout the country until around World War I. The Gentleman's Directory of New York City, a privately published (1870) guide to the town's "houses of assignation," confidently asserted that "in freshness, sweetness, beauty, and firmness to the touch, New York's apples are superior to any in the New World or indeed the Old." Meanwhile, various "apple" catch-phrases -- "the Apple Tree," "the Real Apple," etc. -- were used as synonyms for New York City itself, which boasted (if that is the term) more houses of ill repute per capita than any other major U.S. municipality.

William Jennings Bryan, though hardly the first to denounce New York as a sink of iniquity, appears to have been the first to use the "apple" epithet in public discourse, branding the city, in a widely reprinted 1892 campaign speech, as "the foulest Rotten Apple on the Tree of decadent Federalism." The double-entendre -- i.e., as a reference to both political and sexual corruption -- would have been well understood by voters of the time.

The term "Big Apple" or "The Apple" had already passed into general use as a sobriquet for New York City by 1907, when one guidebook included the comment, "Some may think the Apple is losing some of its sap." Interestingly, the phrase had also become pretty well "sanitized" in the process, thanks to a vigorous campaign mounted just after the turn of the century by the Apple Marketing Board, a trade group based in upstate Cortland, New York. Alarmed by sharply declining sales, the Association launched what some believe to be the earliest example of what would now be called a "product positioning campaign."

By devising and energetically promoting such slogans as "An apple a day keeps the Doctor away" and "as American as apple pie!" the A.M.B. was able to successfully "rehabilitate" the apple as a popular comestible, free of unsavory associations. It is believed that the group also distributed apples to the poor for sale on the city's streets during the Great Depression (1930-38). No convincing documentary evidence has been produced to support this, however.

-- Society for New York City History,
Education Committee
Copyright © 1995 The Society for New York City History
All rights reserved.


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