Quick: name a name you’d never give to a child. Gertrude? Ethel? Today’s choice often makes that list, but it wasn’t always so.
Thanks to Emily G. for suggesting one from her family tree. Our Baby Name of the Day is Beulah.
From 1885 through 1916, Beulah ranked in the US Top 100, peaking at #72 in 1903/1904. She left the rankings after 1959.
Nancy tells us that five girls were named Beulah in 2009. Her sound is unusual – nothing else sounds quite like BYOO lah. She’s a Biblical place name, an alternate name for Israel in the Book of Isaiah. More than a dozen Beulahs dot the map throughout the English-speaking world. She first became a given name post-Reformation, when parents went looking for non-saintly, but still spiritual, options.
You might recognize actress Beulah Bondi, born in 1888 when the name was quite stylish. She earned two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations in the 1930s, and won an Emmy for her work as Martha Corinne on The Waltons in the 1970s. She played Jimmy Stewart’s mom four times, despite being just ten years his senior.
If you’ve ever been to Milwaukee, you might have heard of Beulah Brinton. She opened her home to teach new immigrants to read English.
But for our parents’ generation – or maybe our grandparents – Beulah is tied to one very specific character. In 1939, Marlin Hurt introduced Beulah on his radio show. Because it was radio – and a few decades pre-civil rights – no one objected that a white man was voicing a black female character. Beulah Brown was the Henderson’s housekeeper, known for her common sense and excellent cooking.
The character caught on, and eventually got her own show. After Hurt died, another white actor continued voicing Beulah. Eventually Hattie McDaniel – the first African-American actress to win an Oscar – would take over the role, but her health failed, and by the time the television show Beulah debuted on ABC in 1950, she filmed only six episodes. Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers also shared screen time as the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Kitchen.”
By the 1950s Beulah had been popular for more than two decades. No wonder parents felt that the name was no longer an option for their daughters, regardless of race or class.
Today’s new parents grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and some of them are daring to resuscitate names long lost. Sure enough, there’s Beulah on Nameberry’s Hipper Than Hipster list. If Opal, Peggy, Fern, and Luella can make a comeback, surely Beulah can, too.
You might recognize British singer Beulah’s 2006 single “Stay.” Former indie band Beulah comes to mind, too, mostly because “Popular Mechanics for Lovers” and other singles have been used in a pair of Michael Cera films in the past few years.
It all makes for a truly daring name. Beulah is either the next Beatrix or Betty, Oona or Tallulah – names that sound perfectly fashionable today, but twenty years ago were unthinkable – or she’s truly headed for obscurity.
It’s too soon to tell, but if you’re crestfallen to discover that Ramona is the new Matilda, maybe Beulah is one to consider.