"Big Apple" prostitution etymology,

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Jun 4 22:53:21 UTC 2001

Actually, it seems pointless to me to enter into a controversy with
Peter Salwen or attempt to refute his balderdash explanation of "the
big apple,", even if I supposed he would be aware of the discussions
posted here, because I certainly in no way suppose that he is a man of
any intellectual integrity or respect for accuracy or historical
truth.  There are those among us who do not endure with equanimity the
thought that bullshit is mighty and shall prevail.  To them I say, if
it is of any comfort, that in a search on Google for "big apple
nickname", the first really useful hit (3rd overall) is for a source
called "The Internet Public Library", which offers referrals to four
sources, the first three (from the Museum of the City of New York, the
NYPL, and the Word Detective) all cite the information uncovered by
Gerald Cohen, Barry Popik and David Shulman, giving them proper
acknowledgement.  Their fourth source is Salwen's piffle.  It is true
that Popik's Law, that bad word histories drive out good, will result
in the folk, being given their choice of three correct, well-stated and
well-sourced stories and one phony one, will choose to believe the
phony story, especially since it's got sex in it.

If there is any hope of getting this tale withdrawn from circulation, I
think it will not be through protests to Salwen, but through queries of
some of the people listed on the homepage of his "Society for New York
City History".  Several of them are professional tour guides and no
doubt prefer amusing falsities to the truth.  However, there are others
who have some status as historians, and I think they should be abashed
to have their names associated with an organization whose only public
manifestation is this "big apple" codswallop.  Perhaps inquiries of
them, as to whether they are aware that their names are being
prositituted in this fashion, would produce some results.  I notice
among those named as leaders of this supposed society are John
Tauranac, who has written books on NYC architecture published by Holt,
Rinehart Winston and Little, Brown -- I own one of them; Jeffrey
Kroessler, who is said to have curated exhibits for the Queens
Historical Society; Joyce Mendelsohn, said to have been formerly
associated with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; and Richard
McDermott, publisher of a magazine on NYC history aimed at the general

Let me nonetheless post a couple of factual absurdities in Salwen's
tale.  He says that Mlle Saint-Evremond's cat house was "a substantial
house that still stands" at 42 Bond street.  42 Bond street does indeed
still stand, flanked by vacant lots.  It is in fact a double-width
building, more accurately 42-44 Bond, and stands 7 stories high.  It
also covers the entire lot, front to back.  I don't claim a discerning
eye when it comes to architecture, but there is no way that this
building was built before the general availability of the elevator, nor
that it was ever used for any purpose other than what it is now used
for, which is light manufacturing.  I would guess it to date from the
late 19th century or the early 20th.  Salwen says that Bond street at
the time she opened her whore-house was "one of the city's most
exclusive residential districts".   Bond street was laid out in 1805,
but not paved until 1827 or thereabouts.  By 1833 it was mentioned as
having handsome rows of houses -- though not, I don't suppose, rows of
houses 7 stories high.  It's hard to believe that Bond street was
densely built-up before 1820 or even 1830.  The manager of my "African
Theatre" moved his company to Mercer and Bleecker in 1822 just because
it was an undeveloped area, with no neighbors to complain of the noise
and activity his theatre caused.  The playhouse was one block west of
Broadway -- Bond street runs east from Broadway -- and a couple of
blocks closer to Canal street than Bond is.  It may well have been a
respectable street from the beginning, but I think calling it "most
exclusive" must be an exaggeration.  In any event, it seems to me that
opening a whore-house on even a respectable block, much less an
exclusive one, would have been a certain recipe for drawing
a "disorderly house" complaint.  I could go around to the branch of the
National Archives on Varick street and check the census records of
1810, 20, 30 & 40, to see who was really living on Bond street, or to
the Municipal Archives to check the city's own census of 1819 and the
tax records, but I don't think the effort would be repaid.

Second, Mlle Saint-Evremond is said to have become engaged to John
Hamilton, Alexander's son, about 1805, but that this engagement was
broken off, for some reason not now known, and she opened her whore-
house on the rebound, I suppose to ease her aching heart.  To descend
into speculation for a moment, a plausible reason why this marriage
failed to be carried out is that John Church Hamilton was 13 years old
at the time, having been born in 1792.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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