In her book Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York — now available from Rutgers Univerity Press — author Elizabeth L. Bradley traces the use of Washington Irving’s fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker — the crusty narrator of his 1809 satire A History of New York — as the embodiment of All Things New York. Here’s Bradley, in a recent piece in the New York Times:
Manhattanites knew little of their Dutch founding fathers, and Irving took advantage of that to create a past that interwove fact and fable; one that presented an appealing portrait of the Dutch colonists as pleasure-loving, pipe-smoking burghers who introduced Santa Claus, doughnuts and diplomacy to America, and let their meandering cows give shape to the streets of Lower Manhattan . . . What Irving did not anticipate was that in the ensuing 200 years, New Yorkers would adopt his imaginary character as an emblem of all that was authentically, emphatically New York . . . generations of New Yorkers recast the Dutchman according to their needs and their times: he became a symbol of nativism and patriotism, of high society and of five-borough consolidation, and he was seized upon to market everything from beer to basketball.
Spot on. At the time, Irving had no idea he had just created an advertising juggernaut. But New Yorkers were quick to embrace Knickerbocker — with his unshakable, unimpressed, irreverent attitude — as the ultimate New Yorker, and even in Irving’s lifetime, Diedrich was already a go-to icon for companies seeking to brand themselves and their products as distinctly New York.
In his introduction to the 1848 author’s revised edition, Irving wrote of his amazement at finding his crotchety narrator had “become a ‘household word,’ and used to give the home stamp to every thing recommended for popular acceptation, such as . . . Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker bread and Knickerbocker ice.” Today the name is still used by the city’s professional basketball team, albeit in its more familiar abbreviated form, reading simply KNICKS.
There’s a fun slide show over at the New York Times where Bradley provides a peek at the use of the Knickerbocker name in and around New York, sometimes visible in faded painted lettering for defunct companies, other times still blazing in bright neon letters on restaurants and clubs. The slide show starts right here, and you can order Bradley’s book here.