A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 12, 2004
Harlem’s jazz musicians (1930s)
Harlem's jazz musicans did undeniably help spread the "Big Apple" phrase in the 1930s, but did not originate it.

The Big Apple night club, at Seventh Avenue and West 135th Street, was started by sportsmen in 1934. The owners were almost certainly familiar with "the Big Apple" in the Morning Telegraph. In fact, it was a "Harlemania" entertainment column in the Morning Telegraph that helped to popularize Harlem.

In 1927, Claude McKay's classic Home to Harlem was published. "Big Apple" is not in the book.

In 1930, James Weldon Johnson's classic Black Manhattan was published. "Big Apple" is not in the book.

It is sometimes claimed that Dr. Alain Locke (1885-1954) said this quote circa 1919: “Harlem is the precious fruit in the Garden of Eden, the big apple.” In 1990, Geraldine Daniels, an Assemblywoman from Harlem, had this letter published in the August 26th New York (NY) Times:

"According to Harlem griots (oral historians), the clue to the mystery is Harlem. It is my understanding that Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University, originated the term during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's.

"Dr. Locke, a graduate of Harvard University and the first black Rhodes Scholar to attend Oxford University, used the term to depict Harlem as the precious fruit in the Garden of Eden, an oasis for the literary, musical and painting talents of oppressed black American intellectuals.

"A colleague of Dr. Locke's in the 20's was Fletcher Henderson, a graduate of Atlanta University and native of Cuthbert, Ga. He was the arranger for Benny Goodman in the 1930's and 80's, a composer of jazz and other mujsic, and conductor of his own orchestra, which is believed to have been the first black musical ensemble to play on Broadway.

"It was Fletcher Henderson, Harlem griots tell us, who popularized the term 'Big Apple.'"

I wrote to Daniels' office and said that "oral historians" wouldn't do for twentieth century New York City. Did she have any written evidence? She had none.

I have spent many hours reading the Amsterdam News and New York Age, and looking at all of Locke's and Henderson's works. "Big Apple" is not there before the 1930s.

Google News Archive
16 June 1934, Afro-American (Baltimore, MD) , "A Harlem Questionnaire" by Ted Yates, pg. 8:
That new beer tavern on 135th Street has been named the Big Apple.

23 June 1934, Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), "Harlem Hot-Cha" by Ted Yates, pg. 4, col. 6:
The Big Apple, Harlem's newest bar and grill opens next week.

30 June 1934, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, pg. 17, col. 7:
All the colonial touches that Jimmie Shannon could find for a modern barroom he procured for his latest venture, "The Big Apple," an ostentatious drinking emporium which opened its doors Tuesday night at the northwest corner of 135th street and Seventh avenue.

Done in glazed brick, hand-carved beams and panelings, the place is probably the snootiest in Harlem and by far the most pretentious bar ever opened by a Negro. Scrolls, wioth such sayings as the following, adorn the walls: "A Little Nonsense Now and Then Is Relished by the Best of Men," "He Who Does Not Love Wine, Women and Song Remains a Fool His Whole Life Long."

7 July 1934, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, pg. 7, col. 4 ad:
*Delicious Food*
*Wines and Liquors*
135th St., cor. 7th Ave.
Pg. 9, col. 1:
"This Hectic Harlem" by Roi Ottley
The Big Apple has arrived and is worth your time.

14 July 1934, Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), "New York After Dark" by Ted Yates, pg. 8, col. 8:
What do they mean by the "big" apple?

11 August 1934, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, pg. 7, col. 1 ad:
Mr. James L. Shannon, proprietor of "The Big Apple," wishes to thank his many friends whose patronage and co-operation have resulted in making "The Big Apple" another successful Negro enterprise. -- One whose reason for existence is to give Harlem a night spot with a refined atmosphere, choice food and beverages at a very moderate cost.
7th Ave., cor. 135th Street
Audubon 3-9240

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
29 October 1934, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, "Reverting to Type" by Art Arthur, pg. 9, col. 6:
Up on Lenox Ave. there's a restaurant called "The Big Apple," the explanation being that "the big apple" is Harlem slang for "the main stem," which is Broadway slang for the main dino.

19 October 1935, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, "This is New York: Just browsin' 'round the town" by Ted Yates, pg. 7, col. 1:
THE BIG APPLE, which got big splash in met. papers when Joe Louis toppled Max Baer, is haven for sportsmen. Operated by Messrs. Shannon and Small, local sportsmen. [Illegible] is always filled with congenial [Illegible]. Bar trade steady.

8 April 1936, Atlanta (GA) Daily World, "So This Is New York," pg. 2, col. 3:
Said to be the wealthiest, "Boss" Shannon, owner of the Big Apple Cafe and Restaurant.

Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: A Guide To The Language Of Jive (1938)
Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary
(1938) is an introduction to the slang of musicians working in New York’s Harlem. As lexicographer Jonathan Green notes, slang is a “counter-language” used primarily by the poor.
Apple (n.): the big town, the main stem, Harlem.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Monday, July 12, 2004 • Permalink