Nine Interesting Facts about Washington Irving

By Dr Oliver Tearle

Washington Irving. Who was that man? Find out just a handful of reasons why we should all have his name on our lips.

1. Washington Irving was named after the first official President of the United States of America. 

Born in 1783 in New York (the city that would loom large in his work), the American writer was named after the great American, George Washington. Of course, Washington only became President in 1789, but when Irving was born he was already known as an important founding father of the newly independent United States.

2. His first book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the Knickerbocker Glory. 

Irving’s first book was a humorous history of New York – yes, once again New York looms large in Irving’s life – and was a huge success.

But one of the great linguistic legacies of the work was that it gave us the name ‘Knickerbocker’, which, following Irving’s book, came to be used as a name for an inhabitant of New York (or a ‘native New Yorker’, to quote from the song).

The Knickerbocker Glory – a multi-coloured ice-cream sundae served in a tall glass – first appears in print in 1936 in a Graham Greene novel. The reasons for Irving’s Knickerbocker being associated with this colourful dessert probably have something to do with our third, related, interesting fact …

3. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the word ‘knickers’. ‘Knickers’ has never been out of use since. 

Diedrich Knickerbocker was the fictional ‘author’ of Irving’s humorous ‘history’, and Knickerbocker came to be used for any New Yorker. However, within half a century the word was being used to describe ‘loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs.

The term has been loosely extended to the whole costume worn with these’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Why the shift in meaning? One theory, which the OED offers, is that such garments resembled the knee-breeches worn by Knickerbocker in British artist George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s History of New York.

At any rate, ‘knickers’ had appeared by the 1880s, with the word shifting genders from men to women, and it has remained so ever since.


4. Irving was the first person to refer to New York as ‘Gotham City’. 

Yes, New York again. Irving first gave his hometown that sobriquet in 1807 in his satirical periodical Salmagundi. Irving borrowed the name from the Nottinghamshire village in England, which was reputedly inhabited by fools.

This legend itself derived from medieval times, and the tale of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’: the story goes that in the thirteenth century, King John wanted to build a hunting lodge near the village, but decided against it because the people of the village appeared to be very simple.

Whenever the king’s men arrived they found villagers doing incredibly stupid things: attempting to drown eels, or rolling cheeses down a hill in the hope that they’d find their way to the Nottingham fair. The plan worked and John moved his lodge elsewhere.

Interestingly, the Nottinghamshire village is pronounced ‘Goat-em’, whereas the nickname for New York is always ‘Goth-em’. Of course, since Irving first Christened New York ‘Gotham’, the Batman comic strip and films have cemented the phrase ‘Gotham City’ firmly in the American – and, indeed, the world’s – psyche.

5. Irving wrote the fairy story of Rip Van Winkle. 

The story of the man who goes to sleep in the Catskill mountains and wakes up years later to find his wife dead and his son grown up was written by Irving while he was staying in England, in 1819. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for twenty years, not a hundred: some think he sleeps for a century because the tale is confused with Sleeping Beauty.

We have analysed this classic story here.


6. He also wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. 

This was written a year after ‘Rip’, in 1820, and was, of course, made into the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Irving is best-known for these two fairy tales.

7. He gave us the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’. 

Not much to add on this one, except to say that he coined this phrase in 1837 in his story ‘The Creole Village’.

8. Irving was responsible for the ‘flat earth’ myth. 

Once more, we’re in the realm of foolish medieval folk.

According to Jeffrey Russell in his 1991 book Inventing the Flat Earth, it was Irving’s 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round. Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world.

But sometimes a myth can be more powerful than fact, and many still believe that Columbus’s contemporaries all thought the world was flat and it might be possible to sail over the edge of it. Why did Irving invent the story then? Possibly to make Columbus look even more of a man ahead of his time than he was, as the great man who helped to found the New World, Irving’s own homeland.

9. Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. 

Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again.

Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving. Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus.

Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.

If you enjoyed this feast of facts, check out our interesting facts about Margaret Atwood.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.


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  5. Thanks for this post! We are Hudson Valley residents (the cat, myself, and my English husband) and I love Washington Irving! Ellie

  6. Glad I stumbled on this informative post. As a Hudson River Valley resident and champion, I love to learn about the local history and historic figures. Nicely done!

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  8. Great facts! I couldn’t help but click on this post because I’m currently reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories which are all by Washington Irving. While I have come across some of these in the book I hadn’t heard of all of them, so thanks! :)

  9. I first encountered Washington Irving through his Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while exploring Granada. I didn’t realise there was so much to more to him – good to know!

  10. Great list. I had no idea

  11. I love Washington Irving. This was interesting and fun, so I reblogged it!

  12. Reblogged this on A Wilderness of Words and commented:
    Because Washington Irving was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid (the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow fame scared the bejeezus out of me, which was thrilling, the notion of sleeping 20 years like Rip Van Winkle was kind of awesome), I wanted to share this fun post via the folks at Interesting Literature. And it is World Book Day in the UK today.


  13. Back in 1992 I went to England and took my very worn copy of Washington Irving’s Westminster Abbey. I walked the path he walked and read about the Abbey from his point of view. It was a very special moment in my life. Love his work.

  14. good post, but I think you’re giving him too much credit. A lot of people saw old maps and thought people in the past believed in the flat earth, and celebrating christmas has a lot of origins at different times and different places.

  15. Thanks once again for the enlightenment! Here I thought the earth really was flat. ;-)
    I’ve always loved the Night Before Christmas poem (which is often attributed to Clement Clarke Moore). I was unaware of Irving’s role in the evolution of our Christmas celebrations. Mustn’t forget, though, that Prince Albert brought many Christmas customs with him from Germany to Britain – and then on they went to US.
    Keep up the great posts! dch

    • Indeed, good call with Prince Albert. And let us not forget the German influence in the form of the Christmas tree baubles, which all came from a single German village called Lauscha…

      • I am impressed! I’ve lived in Germany for 35 years and have never heard of Lauscha. So that meant I had to google it. Lauscha has had glass works for several hundred years and that included making Xmas tree decorations. It’s always a revelation what one can uncover in the web. I had been thinking more of the wooden toys, figures and tree deco that comes from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), east of Lausha, near the Czech border. Here they’ve been making nutcrackers, incense burning figures, etc. for centuries. . Germans love their Xmas markets – as do the Brits love Germany’s Xmas markets – that are held every year to sell, amongst other things, decorations for house and tree. Both Lauscha and the Erzgebirge are in the former DDR and have experienced a rebirth since reunification in 1990.

  16. Great post as usual! I learned a lot! Thank you!

  17. Love ths stuff. Thanks.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

  18. Thanks for the review of interesting facts of Washington Irving. To many of us/or maybe just a few he is only remembered for the fairy tales.

    So now I know whom to blame for the hectic-ness of Christmas. lol

  19. Fascinating. Just fascinating. Thank you so much for this post.