Vintage Surname Names Come Back Around
Vintage surname names — it’s not an oxymoron!
Yes, we tend to think of surname names as a modern trend, and in many ways it is. The way we use surname names today is remarkably different from a century ago.
Historically, wealthy families passed down surnames as a way to authenticate bloodlines and prove entitlement to fortunes. That is, if you called your son by Great Aunt Minnie’s maiden name, you’d solidify your stake in her estate.
These days, if your baby is Walker or Addison or Quinn, you’re more likely to have chosen the name for its fashionable sound than a chance at inheritance. In fact, you might not have any relatives with those surnames even in your family tree.
Although perhaps you chose a surname name to honor a personal hero, as parents 100 years ago were also apt to do. The figures they honored were mostly politicians — Jefferson, Cleveland, and Monroe were Top 300 choices — as well as inventors, businessmen, and scientists such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Charles Darwin.
They were not using the names of entertainers, artists, or sports stars, which is a trend today. In the 21st century, parents prefer celebrity surnames like Beckham and Brooks, Lennon and Legend. Just as there weren’t any baby Chaplins or Fitzgeralds or Wagners born in 1921, we haven’t found any evidence of modern-day babies being named Biden or Bezos or Musk.
Move to Modern Surname Names
The major shift in surname names started around 1980, when -er-ending occupational names such as Parker, Cooper, Carter, and Hunter began to take off for boys. A handful of surnames were finding ground as feminine given names as well — choices like Morgan, Madison, and Mackenzie. Prior to this, it was rare to meet a girl with a surname name.
The 1990s was the beginning for -son names: Hudson, Jackson, Carson, et al. By the time the millennium turned over, surname names were an established trend.
These names had all previously ranked in the US Top 1000 for boys, but now the difference was that they were primarily being used among families with no connection to the surnames, familial or otherwise. It was all about style!
Lately, however, this trend has been shifting back to its roots — authentic family names. Parents still love the surname style popularized by Carter, Hudson, and Morgan, but they’re looking to their own family trees for inspiration.
Even with this return to traditional naming practices, the surnames parents are plucking from their family histories differ from those a century ago. Take a look at these collections of vintage surname names, culled from sources 100 (or more!) years old.
Top Vintage Surnames
Much like today, dozens of surname names made the American popularity charts 100 years ago. There’s some overlap between then and now — names like Fletcher, Harrison, and Ellis are currently fashionable. A few of these vintage surnames are now hits for girls, most notably Emerson and Palmer.
But by and large, these once-stylish surnames are currently neglected. Some need more time away before they become palatable again — it’s hard to imagine a baby Elwood or Milford — but most would feel fresh yet familiar on a baby boy or girl.
Here, a selection of surnames that ranked in the US Top 500 in 1921:
Honorary Vintage Surnames
Famous surnames were a widely tapped source of baby name inspiration back in the day. Historical figures such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus were common namesakes, as well as contemporary notables including Warren G. Harding and Henry Ford.
These surnames ranked in the US Top 1000 in 1921 and honored notable people of the past and then-present:
Unique Vintage Surnames
Given that surname names were most common among America’s upper class, we sourced these unique surname names from the yellow pages of the elite — the Social Register.
Many major US cities had (and still have) a Social Register, a directory of the who’s who of high society and the social clubs they belong to. Inclusion in the Social Register requires wealth and blue blood parentage — factors that historically contributed to the use of surname names.
Many unique surnames-as-first names can be found in archival editions of the Social Register. Including some used for girls! Not all of these vintage surname names are particularly usable, although we’d be charmed to meet a baby Holloway or Stiles or Everston.
The names below were drawn from early 20th-century Social Registers of New York and Chicago: