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Family Names: Some genealogical gems

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Nameberry Leslie Owen searches through the pages of her family history and digs up some interesting–and sometimes surprisingly modern-sounding– colonial treasures.

One of the reasons I became so interested in names is because I discovered the two-volume edition of the Brewster Genealogy in my grandparents’ house in Maine.  I pored over the pages, discovering unusual family names –Ohel, for example – and names I found beautiful, such as Solace and Wrestling.  I discovered ancestors who were famous and who led incredible lives.  I discovered information that surprised my family.  The books, however, disappeared, much to my great disappointment.  But recently, I was able to download a copy of Volume One from the Boston Public Library, and I am back to using it to make lists and rediscoveries.

William and Mary Brewster had five living children, all of whom eventually came to Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Elder William Brewster was the religious leader of the colony, the only one who had to leave England (there was an arrest warrant for him, for treason), and it was his tireless work that kept the survivors alive during that first hard winter, according to Governor William Bradford’s account in Of Plimouth Plantation.  The first names of the Brewsters, who married into the most prestigious New England families, fall into several categories:  Puritan virtue names, Biblical names, classic English names, and what I call Stuart/Georgian names.

Here are twelve girls’ and twelve boys’ names that I’ve found repeatedly throughout the genealogy and that could hold some interesting possibilities for an adventurous nameberry:

Girls

Celinda – one of those Stuart names, like Belinda and Melinda and perhaps a variant of Celeste or Celine.

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If you were naming a baby in 1911, you certainly wouldn’t be thinking about the hottest baby name trends or what was cool or hip.  Ah, those were the days!

But it is interesting to look back and see what patterns were in evidence then, which names—some of them really surprising—have obeyed the hundred-year-rule and already made a comeback, now sounding completely modern, and what undiscovered treasures might be lurking in the list,.  (We do have to bear in mind that some near the bottom of the Top 1000 in 1911 were given to only around twenty babies, whereas on today’s list, due to the growth in population, the lowest name on the list belonged to 249 girls.)

The Top 10 on the 1911 boys’ list were the expected classics: John, William (the only one still standing in the current Top 10), James, George, Robert, Joseph, Charles, Frank, Edward and Thomas, while there was somewhat more period-related variety for the girls: Mary, Helen, Margaret, Dorothy, Ruth, Anna, Elizabeth, Mildred, Marie and Frances—none of which is in today’s Top 10—Elizabeth being the closest at Number 12.

This was still the heyday of flower and gem names, so we’re not surprised to see Rose, Ruby, Pearl, Daisy, Flora, Garnet, Iris, Jewel, Opal, Pansy, Lily and Violet all on the list.

Another trend in girls’ names was the use of three- and four-letter names ending in a and often beginning with a vowel– most of which (with the exception of Ava, Eva and Ada) have not reemerged and still feel a little musty.  These others include:

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Guest blogger Eleanor Nickerson follows her recent keen analysis of Victorian names with the period of British baby names that came next: the Edwardians.

What marks the Edwardian era of British baby names as distinct from those used in the Victorian period is the sheer number of different names used. In previous centuries the standard practice was to select a child’s name from the immediate family. When an infant died the next child to be born would be given that name, limiting the name pool to five to eight names in a family. Fanciful names were reserved for the aristocracy, and even they kept them permeating along the family line.

The Victorians made a change to this idea. Names borne by a deceased family member were now considered ‘unlucky’. Parents suddenly had to look elsewhere for names and artistic, literary and religious movements provided much needed inspiration. The Victorian love of anything ‘gothic’, and the influence of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites brought back medieval and mythical names like Lancelot, Ralph, Edgar, Alice, Elaine, Edith and Mabel; the Romantic movement re-introduced names such as Wilfred, Quentin, Cedric, Amy and Rowena; and the religious Tractarian movement revived long lost Saint’s names like Augustine, Benedict, Ignatius, Euphemia and Genevieve.

By the Edwardian era many of these previously obsolete names had become de rigueur and permeated all the social classes. More than at any time before, the gap between the names of the upper classes and those of the lower was considerably contracted. The 1911 census shows that many wealthy household members shared the same names as their domestic servants.  For example, Constantia Beatrice Sophia, born 1905, was the daughter of a furniture mover and Lancelot Frederick Charles, born 1907, was a nurseryman’s son, showing that these previously ‘upper class’ names were now being enjoyed throughout the social classes.

One of the biggest trends of the Edwardian era of British baby names was the use of nature names. Some of the most popular names such as, Daisy, Iris, Ivy, Primrose, Beryl, Pearl and Ruby were used sparingly in the first half of the nineteenth century – and, interestingly, equally spread amongst boys and girls. By the 1880s, these names started to became very fashionable (now solely for girls) which led to them becoming the darlings of the Edwardian age.

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Colonial Names: Great New Old Choices

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I was in Williamsburg, Virginia not too long ago, where there was a wonderful show of folk art portraits at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum. I was transfixed by the art, of course, but even more transfixed by the colonial names.

Colonial names never cease to surprise and fascinate me.  Among the many (many many) people named Mary and Elizabeth, Henry and James, there are always several names that are real doozies.

These are names that are mostly rooted in the bible or mythology, but that you just don’t hear much in the modern world.

But that doesn’t mean that many of these colonial names aren’t ripe for revival. A few of the colonial names on this list — notably Mercy, Augustine, and Susannah — are being rediscovered by today’s parents.

The others, well, are they undiscovered gems or mere curiosities? What do you think?

This collection is simply based on the (real) 18th century people pictured in the portrait show.

girls

  • Burneretta — This is not a literally unique name — a few others are findable online — but seems to be an invention.
  • Debrah — Interesting to see that Deborah had spelling variations 300 years ago.
  • Delia — An old-fashioned name with a sleek modern feeling (like Celia), Delia can also be short for Adelia or Cordelia.
  • Dorothea — Coming back along with brother Theodore.

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