As motion pictures gained popularity in the 1910s and 1920s, baby names changed based on the most popular characters and stars.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) tracks the popularity of baby names over time, starting in 1900. After this quote, I track the the trajectories of some of the names which proved popular around 1920.
And so I knew that it was upon us — the motion-picture name period… Mixed in with the Rosanas and the Giovannis of the imported element came the babies of our good, sturdy American stock surnamed Smith and Jones. Norma and Pearl they were, Madge and Billie, Mae (spelled just as the electric lights spell it) and Blanche (with an “e”). Also a renaissance of Marys. On through the foreign Oscars and Giuseppes, Marys appear in quantities unprecedented.
How did those names fare in the long run?
- Norma: the #69 name of 1920, peaked at #22 in both 1931 and 1932. Last ranked in the top 1,000 in 2002.
- Pearl: the #62 name of 1920, actually peaked in the first year of available data (1900) at #24. Seemed to last rank in the top 1,000 in 1986, then disappeared for more than two decades, until reappearing in 2007 and staying there almost every year since, ranking #647 in 2018.
- Madge: the #303 name of 1920, peaked in the first year of available data (1900) at #232. Last appeared in the top 1,000 in 1948. It’s short for Margaret: the #4 name of 1920, peaked at #3 every year between 1905 and 1911. Ranked #127 in 2018.
- Billie: the #212 name of 1920, peaked at #79 in both 1929 and 1930. Last appeared in the top 1,000 in 1997, though one wonders if the 2019 breakthrough of pop star Billie Eilish will provide the name a renaissance.
- Mae: the #99 name of 1920, peaked at #53 in 1902. Seemed to last rank in the top 1,000 in 1969, then disappeared for more than four decades, until reappearing in 2010 and staying there every year since, ranking #554 in 2018.
- Blanche: the #102 name of 1920, peaked at #58 in 1902. Last ranked in the top 1,000 in 1964.
- Mary: the #1 name of 1920, and indeed every year between 1900 and 1946. It never even dropped out of the top 10 until 1972. These days it doesn’t even rank in the top 100, at #126 in 2018.
My own name, Jesse, peaked in popularity at #37 among boys born in 1981. What happened that year? Here’s a hint:
Brand of the Movies on Babies’ Names
Published: Sunday, August 22, 1920