New York state is America’s top apple grower, after the state of Washington, but New York City’s nickname has nothing to do with fruit production. In fact, the Big Apple moniker first gained popularity in connection with horseracing. Around 1920, New York City newspaper reporter John Fitz Gerald, whose beat was the track, heard African-American stable hands in New Orleans say they were going to “the big apple,” a reference to New York City, whose race tracks were considered big-time venues. Fitz Gerald soon began making mention of the Big Apple in his newspaper columns. In the 1930s, jazz musicians adopted the term to indicate New York City was home to big-league music clubs.
The nickname later faded from use and wasn’t revived until the early 1970s, as part of a tourism campaign to spiff up New York’s image. At the time, the country’s most populous city was experiencing economic woes and high crime rates. The man credited with creating the ad campaign, Charles Gillett, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, was a jazz enthusiast who knew that the Big Apple had once been a sobriquet bestowing respect on the city. Pins, T-shirts and other promotional items featuring apples soon proliferated, and visitors were invited to take a bite out of the Big Apple; this time around, the name stuck.
As it happens, long before New York City was nicknamed the Big Apple, it was known briefly as New Orange. In 1673, the Dutch captured New York from the English and dubbed it New Orange in honor of William III of Orange. However, the following year, the city reverted to English control and its former name.