You probably know that the full name of the New York Knicks—one of our beloved, disastrous local basketball teams—is actually the New York Knickerbockers. But do you know why they're called that—or even what that word means and where it came from? It turns out it's all because of legendary short story writer Washington Irving and his satirical early history of New York City.
In December of 1809, before he was famous, the 26-year-old Manhattan-born Irving published his satirical book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, using the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving's satirical project transcended the written page: he placed a series of missing person advertisements in various New York newspapers looking for information about Diedrich Knickerbocker, who he claimed was a Dutch historian who had gone missing from his hotel in NYC. In one such notice, which was allegedly from the hotel's proprietor, he said that if Mr. Knickerbocker didn't return to the hotel to pay his bill, he would publish the manuscript that Knickerbocker had left behind.
At that time, there was very little historical scholarship about the city: "Irving found that most New Yorkers were totally ignorant of details of the city’s Dutch history, even that it was once called New Amsterdam, which gave him a lot of room to play fast and loose with the facts, for laughs," said Charles Cuykendall Carter, Assistant Curator at the New York Public Library. "New York was a fast-growing but still very young city, by world standards, and the idea of it having a 500+ page, two-volume history was in itself somewhat comical. Irving (as Knickerbocker) makes flamboyantly self-aggrandizing comparisons of himself to classical historians like Thucydides and Herodotus, and it’s a joke when he suggests that in future editions 'Knickerbocker's New York may be equally voluminous with Gibbon's Rome, or Hume and Smollett's England!'"
As for the specific meaning of "Knickerbocker," it referred to the style of pants the Dutch settlers who came to this continent wore—pants that rolled up just below the knee, which became known as "Knickerbockers," or "knickers."
The book was a major success, and helped launch Irving's career—he later wrote such unforgettable works as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
"It took with the public," Irving later said about it, "and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America."
And because of its popularity, the word "Knickerbocker" became forevermore associated with the city. As the Knicks wrote in a press release, "Irving's book introduced the word 'knickerbocker' to signify a New Yorker who could trace his or her ancestry to the original Dutch settlers...The city's most popular symbol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was 'Father Knickerbocker,' complete with cotton wig, three-cornered hat, buckled shoes, and, of course, knickered pants."
You can read Irving's book online here.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.