Naming an American Girl
Reader Laura (nice name!) wrote with a question about the names of the American Girl doll & book series. Each character in the series has a specific cultural/historical setting in the American past. Laura's letter says it best:
I was just reading in the New York Times about how they chose the name Rebecca Rubin for their new doll - "a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, siblings and a grandmother known only as Bubbie."
It seems like for Rebecca they did some research to pick an historically accurate name, and I suppose they did for the other girls as well, but they all sound very "current" to me. Certainly no Gertrudes in the bunch!
What do you think?
Addy Walker (1864 - Black)
Felicity Merriman and her friend Elizabeth (1774)
Josefina Montoya (1824 - Latina)
Julie Albright and her friend Ivy Ling (1974 - Ivy is Asian)
Kaya (1764 - Native American)
Kirsten Larson (1854 - from Sweden)
Kit Kittredge and her friend Ruthie (1934)
Molly McIntire and her friend Emily (1944 - Emily is from England)
Naming an American Girl is an intriguing challenge. It's a delicate balance of baby naming, character naming and brand naming. The company generally strikes that balance very well, though nobody's perfect.
Let's take Rebecca Rubin as an example. Could a Jewish girl born to an immigrant family in New York circa 1904 have been named Rebecca? Certainly. The 1910 U.S. Census lists 796 girls named Rebecca born 1902-1906 living in New York City. Judging by surname, a majority of them were Jewish...and three of them were named Rebecca Rubin.
QED, Rebecca Rubin is a plausible name for such a girl. That's a big step up from the likes of Disney's Tiana. But is it a typical name that represents its cultural moment? Consider that the same Census sample that gave us three Rebecca Rubins also yields at least that many Rubins with names more typical of the period, such Dorothy, Helen, Mary, Bessie, and Anna...not to mention 11 Idas, 11 Fannies and 17 Roses & Rosies. The trick is that none of those names sounds distinctly Jewish.
As a biblical matriarch, Rebecca is a classic "good Jewish name." It has traditionally sounded Jewish to non-Jews, too -- the "Jewess" Rebecca of Ivanhoe is a glaring example. (It took Shirley Temple as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to make the name an interfaith American favorite.) Today, Rebecca sounds timeless with a whiff of the 1970s. Unlike, say, Bessie or Ida, it definitely does not summon up 1914. This suggests that the dollmakers were focusing more on the religious connotations than the time period when they chose the name. That's a perfectly reasonable decision.
It doesn't hurt that Rebecca is still a well-liked name. As reader Laura noted, American Girl has tailored all of the dolls' names to modern tastes. In reality, little Miss Larson from Sweden would have been much more likely to be a Matilda or a Wilhelmina than a Kirsten. But Rebecca seems a bit stiff alongside doll names like Addy, Kit and Molly. One alternative that would have hit the quadruple-bullseye of Jewish heritage, period feel, informal style and modern appeal: Sadie. There were 11 Sadie Rubins in the Census list, and 6 Sarahs besides.