The "Key to the City" is bestowed upon distinguished persons and honored guests of the City of New York. The practice of presenting a key to an individual may be traced back to medieval times, when admission into a city was hampered by many legal restrictions, as well as by walls and locked gates. The key symbolized free entry. In New York, the act of giving the Key of the City is symbolic, since the city has no gates to unlock. Today, the presentation honors outstanding civic contributions of the recipients.
In early days, New York City honored esteemed persons with the "Freedom of the City," the custom of granting to distinguished residents or visitors the "privileges connected with mutual citizenship." To symbolize this, a recipient of the honor would receive a gold box containing mementos or gifts from city leaders. Next to election to public office, the presentation of the "Freedom of the City" was considered the highest form of municipal honor.
The first such gift was presented on June 27, 1702, when the Mayor Philip French executed a "Freedom of the City" for the Viscount Cornbury. In conjunction with this gift, all those in the city who were too poor to purchase their freedoms were made "Freemen of the City (sic) Gratis." By the middle 1800's, it became customary to give a key to the City as a direct symbol of the city's intention that the recipient is as free to come and go at will.