Vibrant and seductive: 1970s advertising campaign
All sorts of speculations could be made about this: Was the city once famous for its apple trees? No. It can’t have anything to do with Steve Jobs’ computer company either, because that came later and is located on the west coast.
Already in the early 1970s there was a big advertising campaign to attract tourists. That became the city marketing slogan. “Big apple” should be remembered, the apple should become a recognizable logo in brochures. The red, crunchy, juicy apple should stand for a city bursting with life, perhaps also seductive – and that made an impression.
Earliest source with reference to the apple: book from 1909
However, the marketing people didn’t just make it up that way; the phrase “Big Apple” was there before that. The first mention can be found in 1909. At that time a book by the author Edward S. Martin was published – he was, among other things, the editor of the Life Magazines. The book was called „The wayfarer“. It includes a quote about Midwesterners from Kansas who see New York as a greedy city and find that “the big apple” – New York, “gets an undue share of the national juice”. This is the earliest source that refers to New York as the Big Apple.
Equestrian sports and jazz picked up the expression early on
The expression was probably already common and was kept alive by different sides. First, there was horse racing in the 1920s. Horse racing was very popular in New York. And the prizes for the winners were correspondingly high. And whoever won there was said to have it Big Apple won.
That alone might not have stuck in people’s minds if it hadn’t been for a sports journalist New York Morning Telegraph would have given: John Fitz Gerald named his regular equestrian sports column after this circumstance: „Around the Big Apple“. He says he picked it up in New Orleans, where the horse racing prizes were a little lower and where the riders and their grooms spoke enviously of New York as the city where the bucks were big – where there was the Big Apple up for grabs. You probably also thought of the horses who earned a big apple at the race, but of course what was meant was the big money that their riders took home with them.
Jazz musicians later picked up the expression. There are many jazz tunes from the 1930s where New York is referred to as the Big Apple.
Apparently, the term caught on early on – before it was actively used by the city for marketing purposes in the 1970s.