Vintage Surname Names: Gems from a secret source
If you’ve spent any time on Nameberry recently or if you get our newsletter, you’ve seen the ads for my new novel, The Possibility of You. The story of three women at three key moments of the past century dealing with unplanned pregnancies and questions of motherhood, the book required me to spend a lot of time researching the fashion and music, home decoration and child-rearing practices of 1916. And of course, while I was at it, I couldn’t resist digging up information about names.
One of the most fascinating sources I found was the 1916 Social Register, which listed everybody who was anybody in New York. It took both money and social standing to get your name in the Social Register, and so it was a window into upper class naming practices at the time.
One notable trend in evidence, mostly with male names but occasionally with female ones too, was last names used in first place. Long a practice in moneyed families looking to cement ties between fortunes, these surnames are not the faux Coopers and Parkers that rose up over the past few decades but the genuine article: wealthy Great Aunt Fanny‘s maiden name, for instance, or maternal grandfather’s surname.
Of course, if you’re interested in using a surname as a first for your child, it’s best to use one from your own family, honoring someone you love even if you don’t expect them to leave you a million bucks. But failing that, there’s no reason you can’t steal one of these choices. If you like the whole last names as first style, these sound fresher and more interesting than Taylor or Logan.
Choices from the 1916 Social Register:
Courtlandt (excellent Courtney alternative)
Holloway (mightn’t this be great for a girl?)
Tilden (this was a female name)
Thatcher (been hearing this one on Nameberry recently)
Thornton (this one too!)
Wellesley (also a female name)
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on March 13th, 2012 at 1:39 am
Starling is just darling!
on March 13th, 2012 at 4:14 am
I really love Win as a nickname. Winthrop is certainly a fresh alternative to Winston or Edwin, and in my opinion a lot better than Winslow.
on March 13th, 2012 at 7:41 am
This is still a very common practice in the South. I know folks in their 20s-30s (male and female) named Churchill, Courtlandt, Fisher, Heywood (though not Heyward), Shepherd, Ransom and Wright. And a host of others that didn’t make this list. 🙂
on March 13th, 2012 at 8:47 am
I love surnames butt prefer them in the middle. I could use Averell, French, Lenox, Minton, Shepherd & Tilden happily. I know a 5 year old Fisher. Still strikes me as ridiculous on a person, that one. (rather like Christian, I think: “Brother?) I also dig Howland, Ransom & Kingsbury. Awesome! 😀
Alexia Mae Said
on March 13th, 2012 at 9:00 am
I don’t know how usable Guernsey is because it’s a breed of cow.
on March 13th, 2012 at 9:03 am
One of the chilldren I nanny for has the name Abbott. I absolutely adore Iran’s him. He calls himself Abby, which I find adorable. I also know a Thayer, taken from an old English surname. I prefer that to Thatcher.
on March 13th, 2012 at 9:15 am
I know a girl named Tilden. I actually like it a lot and you can use the nn Tilly
on March 13th, 2012 at 9:37 am
I can totally see Drexel being used since names with X’s are trendy right now. I don’t know if Holloway for a girl is a good choice. It reminds me of Natalee Holloway. However, as a Charmed fan, I have thought that Halliwell would be cute as a first name.
on March 13th, 2012 at 11:01 am
I am missing the connection of Averell to April, I guess they sound alike? I would have thought Averell from the social register in 1916 would be in reference to the Averell family or Harriman family. Mary Averell married EH Harriman and had Averell Harriman – although his first name was William. But the Averell family was equally prominent and likely the name was used as the family branched out.
on March 13th, 2012 at 11:28 am
I agree with melissa2 that this is still common in the south, though most people I know carry a name from their mother’s family as a middle name. My two older sisters have already used our maiden name as a middle for their firstborn sons and I plan to do the same. No brothers or uncles on that side, so the name would end with my father if we didn’t use it. I wonder if there are other regions where this is common practice?
on March 13th, 2012 at 5:06 pm
Winthrop seems useable, but for me Crawford will forever be the villian of Mansfield Park, or the Crawford-Vogul Wenzel oil service. I wish it wasn’t, though. Seems like a nice name.
on March 13th, 2012 at 5:14 pm
Nice! Some of these are great. Ransom is one of my favorite boys’ names right now. I also like Holbrook, Knight, Ogden, Shepherd, Smith and Wright, and some of the others could certainly grow on me. Posts like this make me want to research my genealogy just to dig up gems such as these…
I know a 6-year-old Kaswel whose parents named him after a lake, Caswell Lake. The name is fine, but I cannot get used to the “tryndi” spelling they chose. I so wish they’d spelled it conventionally.
on March 13th, 2012 at 8:33 pm
The Knight family name is ever-present in my family tree, the latest being my great-grandfather George Cushman Owen having married Eleanor Dow Knight. Esther Averill, of Pickles the Fire Cat fame, was my grandmother Helen Hammett Owen’s best friend from childhood, and so Averill/Averell is a name that I really like. Averil is a medieval Norman spelling of the French Avril/April. I am surprised that there weren’t more of the old Dutch family names listed, but perhaps they had faded. My grandfather Thomas Brewster’s mother was a Totten from the Tottens of Staten Island, another old New York family. Interesting post.
on March 14th, 2012 at 6:26 am
@miloowen: Some Dutch surnames from the New York area used as given names:
DeWitt (DeWitt Clinton, 6th Governor of New York)
Cortlandt (Cortlandt Skinner, Attorney General of New Jersey)
Van Rensselaer (Van Rensselaer Richmond, NY politician, known as Van R. Richmond)
Rensselaer (Rensselaer Westerlo, NY Representative)
Schuyler (Schuyler Colfax, 16th US Vice President)
on March 15th, 2012 at 9:36 pm
Great post! I thought a lot of these names were really unique without being too yooneek. I love how you delve into the past to find hidden name treasures. I have recently been doing some geneology and it’s been fascinating to find out what people were named throughout history! Good luck with your book!
on April 7th, 2012 at 6:03 pm
Starling is just so pretty! Most of these names are never heard of today!
on April 10th, 2012 at 3:33 pm
My 2010 babe is a Thatcher, and it suits my little man to perfection. I am a bit saddened that it is gaining popularity. (
on May 5th, 2012 at 2:42 am
i know two twin 10 year old girls called Sophia and Anastasia which I personally love
on June 1st, 2012 at 5:51 am
Starling Bliss Knight is my baby cousins name as she has a star shaped birthmark
on June 9th, 2012 at 12:34 am
My nephew is named Miller, mainly after the beer, but still a surname. Many people (including myself) love it!
on August 2nd, 2012 at 12:49 pm
My sons are Field and Springer…both surnames, or course! We just made Field up, but Springer is a family name.
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