Helen, Ruth, Rose, and Esther: 1930s Names Ready for Revival

by appellationmountain on January 24, 2014

Clara Clara Clara \n Clara Clara ClaraDid you know?  If the name appears in blue, that’s a link to the Baby Name of the Day post about that name.

Spend much time on baby name sites, and you’ll hear about the 100-year rule.  It isn’t a rule at all, but a general guideline: a century is about as long as it takes for a name to sound fresh and new again.

It’s why we so often like our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ names, but find our parents’ names a little dated, and our own names rather dull.  Dads named Jason are welcoming daughters called Clara – a name that would have been appropriate for their 1930s born grandmas, too.

And yet …

  1. Not every name comes back – some do fade into oblivion.
  2. We’re still more than a decade away from 2030, the first year that we might expect to hear the 1930s names in full flourish.
  3. Not every name returns on schedule – some arrive earlier, others languish long past the time you’d expect them to be making it big.
  4. And, of course, rarely does a name chart only for a few years – most rise and fall over the course of several decades, meaning that a Top 100 choice in 1935 could be a Top Twenty choice in the 1960s – and thus, feel more like a mom name than an undiscovered gem.

So how to look at the 1930s names?  I’ll stick with the Top 100 from 1935 – smack in the middle of the decade.  It’s an interesting mix of names – some are definitely back, while a very few never went away.  The most interesting of the bunch are those that feel on the verge – names that might be the next Abigail or Lily.  There are also a handful that seem like they’re ages away from revival – though I’ll be curious to hear if you agree with my groupings!

1930s Names: Already Back

Alice – With all of the charm of Alice in Wonderland, and a boost from Tina Fey’s choice of the classic-meets-quirky Alice Zenobia for her firstborn, Alice has been on the move in recent years.  She ranked #127 in 2012, up from a distant #422 in 2000.

Evelyn – It’s not just Evelyn, actually.  All Ev- names have been having a good run, but at #27 in 2012, Evelyn is among the most popular on this list.

Ruby - She’s colorful, like Scarlett and Violetand at #106 in 2012, she’s hovering just outside of the Top 100.

Jane – At #339, Jane is less popular than many of the “Already Back” names.  And yet, she feels like a 2014 name, a mix of admiration for Jane Austen and an appreciation of short, sweet, complete names.

Eleanor – It is tempting to call her a classic, but Eleanor has risen and fallen over the years.  Today she’s definitely on the rise, up to #135 in 2012.

Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, posed in costum...

Audrey – Boosted by the lovely Miss Hepburn, Audrey has had a good run in recent years – though borrowed-from-the-boys Aubrey is actually more common.

Charlotte – The good girl on Sex and the City and a regal name, too, Charlotte cracked the Top 20 in 2012.

Lillian – Strictly speaking, the botanical Lily is back – she ranked #16 in 2012.  But Lillian wasn’t far behind, at #25.

Josephine – She’s a romantic, français choice, rich with nickname potential.  Josephine has climbed to #160 in 2012, and feels unstoppable.

Clara – She’s a sweet and saintly name, the name of the little girl in The Nutcracker, and a name that is very much on the rise.  As of 2012, Clara stood at #136, and I expect she’ll continue to rise.  She’s quite stylish in much of Europe, too.  (That adorable series of photos at the top?  She’s also a Clara.)

Emma – Emma has been far more popular in recent years than she was in the 1930s.  She’s been in the US Top Ten since 2002, while in the 1930s, Emma was tumbling of favor.  After all, she’d been a big favorite in the nineteenth century, making her a mom name, headed for old lady name status, in the 1930s.

Grace – Lovely, lady-like Grace has a similar pattern to Emma.  Thanks to Grace Kelly and other periodic uses of the name, she feels quite timeless and elegant.  But Grace is back in a big way in 2014, and was fading in the 1930s.

Hazel – Hazel is yet another name that was plummeting in the 1930s, but had a great run in the nineteenth century.  She’s back in a big way in recent years, ranking #175 in 2012, thanks in part to Julia Roberts’ daughter.

1930s Names: The Staples

Elizabeth – The regal, saintly Elizabeth is among the most enduring names for girls in recent centuries.  No surprise she was popular in the 1930s, and remains so today.

Anna – Even without Frozen’s princess, Anna would feel like a perfectly likable choice for a daughter born in 2014.  She’s the most popular of the Ann- names over the years, and currently features in smooshes and elaborations like Annabel and Anneliese.

Catherine – The K spelling is more popular today – Katherine ranked #64, versus Catherine’s #167.  Despite the change in dominant spelling, it would be hard to call her anything other than a classic.

Sarah – She ranked #43 in 2012, and was equally popular in 1935.  I know 40-something Sarahs, and Sarahs in elementary school, and Sarahs in their 70s.  Truly timeless.

1930s Names: Ready for Revival

Mary - The #1 name from 1935 – and many years before and after – continues to fall in the rankings, charting at a chilly #123 in 2012.  But I know two under five, one just a few months old.  Mary is the ultimate familiar-but-not-common name.  Yes, her kindergarten teacher or first boss might be named Mary.  But odds are that no one on her soccer team will share the name.  And while Mary’s long history of use is undeniable, she doesn’t sound fussy or old-fashioned, making Mary less of a risk than some names on this list.

Betty – Elizabeth is a staple, but her short forms come and go.  Today’s parents grew up on The Flinstones‘ Barney and Betty Rubble, and yet, Betty manages to feel like a kicky, retro possibility.  She’s got Hollywood glam thanks to Betty Grable, and Mad Men certainly boosted her profile.  Plus, Design Mom has a Betty.

Dorothy – She’s a three-syllable, ends-with-y name for a girl, a category that has always done well.  Plus, Dorothy takes us over the rainbow to Oz, and offers great short forms, from Dolly to Dot.  After spending 1904 through 1939 in the US Top Ten, she’s been rare in recent decades.  But Dorothy shows the earliest signs of a revival.  In 2012, she ranked #922, up slighting from the year before, and up slightly from the year before that, too.

Joan – Another Mad Men name, and another name worn by Hollywood legends.  (Though Joan Crawford is remembered more for Mommie Dearest than her Oscar-winning work.)  Joni is still stuck on Happy Days, but Joan feels more like the crusading French maiden nowadays.  If Josephine can hit it big, why not Joan?

Margaret – As classic as Katherine, as enduring as Eleanor, Margaret deserves her place in the pantheon of saintly, regal classics.  She’s risen to #178 in recent years, so while she’s not quite stylish once more, Margaret seems ready to return.  Short form Maggie is the current go-to, and is sometimes bestowed independently – Jon Stewart’s daughter is a Maggie.

Nancy – Dauntless girl detective Nancy Drew immediately comes to mind when this name comes up.  She’s originally derived from a medieval form of Agnes, and was later associated with Ann.  Today she stands on her own.  Nancy continues to fall, and fall hard.  She dropped over 100 places to #650 in 2012.  But if choices like Sadie and Maisie are fashion-forward, is Nancy so far behind?

Helen – Both Helen and the Latinate Helena are on the rise, and I was surprised to see that Helen is slightly more popular – #402 in 2012 versus #560 for Helena.  But why not Helen?  She’s the face that launched a thousand ships, a legendary and lovely name that manages to feel frills-free, classic, and strong at the same time.

Ruth – That oo sound has serious appeal right now, from Lucy to Ruby, Cooper to Jude.  No wonder that Ruth is starting to find favor.  She was up 17 places to #343 in 2012.  With her Biblical reputation for loyalty, Ruth likely appeals to families of faith.  But beyond her backstory, Ruth – and Ruthie - feel like part of the next wave of revivals.

Frances – The Italian Francesca has had a good run in recent years, but don’t count out lady-like Frances.  There’s the Pope Francis effect, which could boost all of the Fran-names.  Plus, if Alice is a chart-topper, doesn’t Frances sound like her sister?  She ranked just #764 – more than 250 spots behind Francesca – in 2012, but she did gain slightly from 2011.

Marie – We’re wild for French names for girls, with choices like Elodie and Genevieve on many a shortlist.  But how about Marie?  She’s just as timeless as Mary, a middle name for a huge number of women – and yet, at #576 in 2012, still quite underused.

Gloria – There’s U2’s soaring single from the 1980s, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s second daughter, Gloria Ray, born in 2012.  Add in her -ia ending, shared with Amelia and Sophia, and no wonder she’s climbed to #521 in 2012.  She still feels a little bit clunky, but in a good way.

Rose – She’s the go-to middle name of the moment, but wouldn’t she be marvelous as a given name, too?  As spare as Claire, as botanical as Lily, but at #260, less common than either – for now.

Annie – At #377 in 2012, Annie keeps company with Sadie and her sisters – a nickname name that has a history of use as an independent name.

Louise – Both Louise and Louisa are outside the US Top 1000, despite their classic status.  And yet, with girls answering to Lucy and Luna, Louise feels like a lady-like classic, easy to wear.  It’s a great formal name for Lulu, too.

Elaine – With ties to Arthurian romance and the great nickname Laney, it is easy to imagine Elaine as a wearable alternative in 2014.  But unlike some names in this section, she’s yet to show signs of revival.  In 2012, she fell to #702.

Irene - For so many years, it was “Goodnight Irene,” as she fell from her peak in the early twentieth century to the chilly 400s.  She’s fallen even more since, to the 600s.  But at #655 in 2012, Irene has actually gained a few places in recent years.  Her peaceful meaning is another plus.

June – She’s the merry month, the lovely point between spring and summer.  At #435 in 2012, she’s on the upswing.  DesignMom’s youngest is Flora June, known by her middle.

Sylvia – Credit Sophia and Sophie for making Sylvia and Sylvie feel fresh once more.  Also to her advantage is Sylvia’s woodsy meaning – sylvan is the Latin for forest.

Bonnie – She’s Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter in Gone With the Wind, and a Scottish word meaning pretty.  Today she feels like a gently retro pick, less expected than Sadie but more substantial some nickname-names.

Florence – She’s big in the UK, but astonishingly obscure in the US.  The lead singer of Florence + the Machine makes this gentle antique seem quite edgy.

Lucille – If Lucy and Lillian are back, why not Lucille?

Edith – At first, she seems too fusty to consider.  But Edie seems quite current in 2014.  And Edith – well, with her literary ties and long history of use, chances are that she’s just a few years away from joining other comeback names, like Evelyn, closer to the top of the charts.  Edith was up slightly in 2012, to #761.

Marion – This was the spelling in vogue in the 1930s, though Marian, Mariam, Marianne and many a tailored Mar- name has seen use in the US.

Esther – Yes, Esther.  Once a fashionable favorite, she was actually slipping out of the Top 100 in the 1930s.  But she never fell all that far.  In 1944, Judy Garland played Esther in memorable musical Meet Me in St. Louis, set in 1904.  She’s fell in the 200s or 300s most years since the mid-1950s.  Today she stands at #242, something like Abigail in the 1970s.

Rosemary – My personal favorite of the Rose names, a three-syllable, ends-with-y choice like Dorothy, a spice name like Saffron.

1930s Names: Cautiously Consider

Barbara – She could be considered a timeless classic, a saint’s name with a long history of use and international appeal.  And yet, in the US, Barbara still strikes most of us as a little bit dated.  Blame it on the Barbie doll, or maybe former First Lady Barbara Bush, but either way, this would be an unexpected choice for a daughter in 2014.

Patricia – Patrick is starting to climb in use, but the feminine form of this saintly staple remains in style limbo.  All of the short forms – Patty, Trish, Tish - do feel like mom and grandma names.  And yet she’s such a well-loved name, it is easy to imagine Patricia making a comeback – eventually.

MarilynAdalyn, Madelyn - why not Marilyn?  She’s as Hollywood-certified as Audrey, and fellow 1930s name Evelyn has made a resurgence.  She made a big leap in 2012, but still stood at a chilly #425 – we’ll have to see how she fares when the new data is released.

Virginia – Parents probably think of Virginia as gently old-fashioned, a little more lady-like than spunky Veronica, maybe more approachable than regal Victoria.  But then we remember being an awkward teenager, and we wonder if Virginia is any less rich with teasing potential than Pilgrim-perfect Chastity.  The Wizarding World’s Ginny Weasley could have rescued Virginia – except Miss Weasley is actually a Ginevra.  I have a hard time dismissing Virginia, though.

Janet – It’s the kind of name that always felt dated – until one day I wrote about the name, and thought about Hollywood legend Janet Gaynor.  And all of those -et girl names, like Violet and Charlotte that are so popular.  And I wondered – is Janet such a stretch?  Especially now that my childhood memories – the spunky brunette roommate on Three’s Company, Susan Sarandon’s character in cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show are less relevant to a younger generation of parents, maybe Janet is all lovely young Janet Leigh and utterly wearable.

Martha – We’re into Colonial names for boys, like Nathaniel and Ethan.  First Lady Abigail Adams hasn’t hurt her given name.  And yet the classic, Biblical Martha has plummeted in use.  A Top 100 favorite through 1965, she’s ranked #730 as of 2012.  As with all of these names, it can make a great opportunity for a familiar-but-seldom-heard name.

Carolyn – Caroline is in the Top 100, firmly established as a tasteful classic.  Meanwhile the -lyn version of the name languishes in the 700s and falling.  With Evelyn and so many other -lyn names in vogue, this is something of a surprise.

Ann, Anne – It is tough to slap a warning label on Ann.  She’s an evergreen classic, a name we all love to love, thanks to Green Gables, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, and dozens of other notable bearers.  And yet it is Anna so firmly established in the US, and Annie that feels like an up-and-comer.  Smooshes like Annabelle are all the rage.  It makes Anne seem a little bit uninspired.

Peggy – While Margaret is back, the go-to short form is Maggie.  Peggy has potential, though – especially for parents willing to consider choices like Molly, but after something distinctively different.

Marjorie – Medieval English added a -y to everything, creating many names we still know and love.  Margaret became Margery, and the dominant spelling eventually shifted to the -jorie version, probably thanks to the herb marjoram – a symbol of happiness in ancient days.

Judith – She’s an Old Testament heroine, known for deceiving and beheading the enemy of her people.  Today we expect Judith to be an appellate court judge, or maybe a high-ranking hospital administrator – head of otolaryngology, maybe.  She’s not the little girl next door, and the numbers bear this out.  Judith ranked #893 in 2012, a far fall from her Top Ten status in the 1940s.  And yet, I have no doubt that Judy will be back.  Jude is already hot for boys, and with Judith’s strength and history of use, it is only a matter of time.

Sally – Like the fashionable Sadie, she’s a Sarah short form that now stands on her own.  But while Sadie is a mainstream retro darling, Sally is in limbo.  Mad Men makes her familiar, but that’s part of the problem – Sally remained a Top 100 name from the 1930s into the 1950s, meaning that she needs a few more years to feel fresh again.

Lorraine - A place name, a French name, a name that starts with L?  Lorraine should be as fashion-forward as they come.  Yes, there’s the quiche, but hey, Clementine and Olive are equally edible. Lorraine peaked in the 1930s, meaning that she might sound fresh again in about another ten years.

Loretta – Ever since Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick gave this name to a daughter in 2009, I’ve been curious to see if she would catch on.  The answer so far is no … for now.

Kathleen – How can it be that the delightfully Irish Kathleen is now the name of your middle-aged aunt?  Like Colleen, there’s something perpetually fresh and girlish about the name, even if the bearer is 50-something or 70-plus.  And yet, Kathleen peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s and remained through the 1980s.

Jo – We’re all about mini-names in 2014.  Literary choices from The Little Women era are very much in vogue.  And yet, Jo – and her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy, actually – had their moment.  We’ve moved earlier in the nineteenth century to embrace Jane Austen names instead.  Now Jo’s full name – Josephine – is another matter.

Thelma – Can Thelma ever make a comeback? I have a soft spot for ‘th’ names, whether the ‘th’ is at the beginning or at the end of the name.  She hasn’t ranked in the US Top 1000 since the early 1980s, and yet – doesn’t the sound of Thelma and Louise still thrill?  And couldn’t Thelma follow Olive, Opal, and other hipster baby names onto the Park Slope playgrounds?

Jacqueline – French names are huge, but Jacqueline reads a little 1960s Camelot, thanks to style icon Jackie O.  She ranked a relatively common #243, but is falling steadily.  And yet she could be the perfect pick for parents looking for that “familiar-but-not-common” name.

Ethel – Oh, Ethel.  There’s the legendary Ethel Barrymore.  And a character from Downton Abbey.  British pop singer Lily Allen named her daughter Ethel Mary.  I might have put her on the Gone For Good list, but Ethel has momentum.

Theresa – She’s as much a staple as Margaret, and yet Theresa is definitely out of favor.  Why? Short forms Tess and Tessa are actually crowd pleasers, but Terri - spell it as you like – feels quite dated, as does related name Tracy.  Still, there are plenty of saintly and regal bearers to argue that Theresa – or Teresa or Therese – should be considered a classic.  And if you’re looking for a formal name for Tess, look no further.

Ellen – Blame Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence.  As soon as I met the novel’s accidental temptress, Countess Olenska, Ellen took on a romantic vibe.  Yes, most of us first think talk show host Degeneres, also know as Finding Nemo’s
and even elegant about Ellen.  At #745 in 2012, she’s at her least popular in ages.

1930s Names: Not Just Yet

Shirley – Charlotte Bronte gave the name to a girl in her 1849 novel.  Then came Anne of Green Gables, surnamed Shirley.  By the time Shirley Temple sang “Animal Crackers in my Soup,” the name was a sensation.  Shirley regularly ranked as high as #2 in the 1930s, and paved the way for future hits, like Ashley.  But despite our ongoing affection for ends-with-lee names, Shirley still feels a little too dated to consider for a daughter.

Carol, Carole – She’s still Mrs. Brady to many a modern parent.  Carol had a great run, but today we’re more likely to opt for Caroline, or even a nickname form like Carrie or Carly.

Joyce – We love meaningful names and happy names, and spare, frills-free names for girls are on the rise.  Joyce ranked #11 or #12 in the 1930s, but she remained in the Top 100 into 1966.  That means that while Joyce was at home with Ruby and Alice, she was still in vogue when Lisa and Tammy were all the rage.

Jean – What was Hollywood blonde bombshell Harlow’s first name?  Yup, Jean.  She’s another form of John, a Top 100 name from 1906 to 1964.  Like Joyce, that means that Jean still needs more time to seem interesting again.

Beverly – The big celebrity name of 2013 was Everly, but Bev is still stuck in limbo.

Lois – Her sounds are on trend, and there’s fearless girl reporter Lois Lane to boost her profile.  But still, Lois feels more like the mom on Family Guy than your new baby daughter – and probably needs a few more years before we can reconsider.

Donna – High fashion and West Wing gave us compelling reasons to consider Donatella.  But just Donna?  Maybe not just yet.

Norma – I love Lorna and other clunky throwbacks.  Nora is definitely back, in a big way.  But 1930s Norma still feels dated – the name shed by Marilyn Monroe, worn by Sally Fields for a Best Actress Oscar win.  Maybe that’s the hitch – while Norma’s heyday was the 1930s, the famous Norma Rae of 1979 ties the name to a later era.

Marlene, Arlene, Darlene – Femme fatale Marlene Dietrich’s name came from a contraction of Marie Magdalene.  Darlene and Arlene are inventions.  All of them are out of step today, when -lyn and -line names are the preferred forms.

Geraldine – None of the Geri/Jerry names are current, so no wonder Geraldine has headed towards obscurity.

Joanne, Joann – What a difference an -a makes!  Just as Ann feels out of time in 2014, so do Joann and Joanne.  Add an -a, though, and Joanna or, better yet, Johanna and Johannah seem rather stylish.

Janice – Yet another feminine form of John that was in vogue in the 1930s.

Sandra – She’s a variation of Alexandra, but shedding the X robs her of much contemporary appeal.

Rita – Lovely Rita, Meter Maid … The Beatles recorded a love song to a parking attendant in 1967.  Before that, the loveliest of the Ritas was Rita Hayworth, born Margarita.  From 1914 through 1960, Rita was a Top 100 staple.  Today she’s almost unknown – and seems not quite ready for revival.

Edna – Isn’t there something interesting about Edna?  She has Old Testament roots, and separate ties to an Irish name.  She peaked at the end of the nineteenth century, and remained popular into the 1940s.  But Edna hasn’t been ranked in the US Top 1000 since the 1990s, and just 88 girls were given the name last year.  Edna St. Vincent Millay could give the name a literary sheen, but she’s still too clunky for most parents to consider.

Roberta – Robert is classic, and that makes me think that Roberta will eventually resurface – just not quite yet.

Pauline – Like Roberta, she’s a feminine form of an enduring masculine name.  Paul is in style limbo right now, as are all of the Paul- feminine forms.  And yet, Paulina has seen some use in recent years, and Pauline’s French flair could help some parents see her as a possibility.

Sharon – She was rising fast in the 1930s, set to peak in the 1940s, and remained popular into the 1970s.  This means that there are still 30-something Sharons out there, and Sharon needs more time to rest.

Yvonne – Like Pauline, her French style makes her a maybe.

Margie – Another Margaret diminutive, but while Maggie is stylish, and Peggy is a maybe, Margie seems like a no – at least for now.

1930s Names: Gone for Good?

Doris – I want to rescue Doris from this list.  She’s mythological!  She’s got that great -or sound!  And ends-with-s names like Alice and Frances seem quite appealing now.  But now Doris is as dated as Doris Day.

Dolores, Delores – The lovely Lola was well-used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She’s an anthem, from “Whatever Lola wants …” to “L-O-LA, Lola!”  But that’s spunky, spirited Lola.  The spiritual, sorrowful Dolores peaked in the 1930s, but still feels too heavy for a child to wear.

Phyllis – For all the buzz about Pippa Middleton, and the potential for Philippa as a girls’ name, Phyllis feels fusty.

Mildred – When’s the last time you met a Leofwin?  Spotted a birth announcement for a baby Oswin?  Very few Anglo-Saxon names have survived, and those that have are very much changed from their original forms. No matter how modern we find Millie, she probably can’t rescue the clunky Mildred.

Wanda – It would take some serious guts to name your daughter Wanda in 2014.  Opal, sure.  Hettie, why not?  But Wanda?  It feels witchy and wacky, the name of your dotty great aunt from Augusta, not your new baby girl.

Patsy – Patsy is to Patricia as Peggy and Margie are to Margaret.  The core name is enduring, but this diminutive feels off in 2014.  I can argue in favor of Betsy, but Patsy feels dated – she’s the

Wilma – Other Wil- names for girls, like Willa and Willow, are decidedly stylish.  But Wilma still feels locked in another time.  Will she make a comeback?  My initial thought was no, but after an exchange with a reader, I’m not sure I’m right on this one …

Juanita – Why not Juanita?  I’m mad about Djuna.  And Juana has a certain charm.  But Juanita strikes me as doomed by her diminutive -ita ending.  Other -itas, like Margarita and Anita, have also tended towards obscurity.

Gladys – 80 girls were named Gladys in 2012.  In the late nineteenth century, Gladys Vanderbilt was an American heiress who married a Hungarian count.  Grammy-winning Gladys Knight graduated from Motown to become the Empress of Soul.  Despite these appealing ties, Gladys seems unlikely to make a comeback.

Bernice – She’s Veronica’s frumpy cousin, the form of the name least likely for revival.

Willie – William is so popular for boys, and plenty of Wil- names for girls are on the rise.  And yet, Willie seems an unlikely name for a girl born in 2014.

Which are your favorite 1930s names?  Which ones do you think will be the next comeback names?  And do you agree with my gone-for-goods?  I’d love to hear someone make the case for Gladys …

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