The Golden Age of Hollywood Baby Names

Jul 2nd 2013

Last week, I compared the biggest celebrity-driven name trends of recent years to the naming impact of Shirley Temple in the 1930s. It was no contest. Shirley's influence absolutely dwarfed anything today's stars can muster.

Does this mean that celebrity culture had a bigger baby-name impact back in the age of the Good Ship Lollipop? Not necessarily. Shirley Temple was an extraordinary phenomenon: a child superstar. Perhaps her shining model of the All-American Girl won over an otherwise conservative naming generation. Or perhaps our own celebrity-saturated age is following a larger number of famous trendsetters, making for a greater overall Hollywood influence.

To find out, I decided to cast my net more broadly. I set Shirley aside and compared the rest of her celebrity name era to the present day.

My periods of comparison were the 21st Century (2000-2012) vs. 1930-1942, the heart of Hollywood's "Golden Age." To count as a celebrity name trend, a rising name had to be linked to a prominent person or character who was attracting a dramatically new level of attention. To capture the full impact of a new star, I looked for names that rose by the largest number of babies over a two-year period.

By that measure, the five biggest celebrity name trends of our century to date are:

#1. Mason (son of reality tv personality Kourtney Kardashian)
#2. Emma (baby born on the sitcom Friends)
#3. Addison (character on tv series Grey's Anatomy)
#4. Jayden (son of singer Britney Spears)
#5. Liam (Hunger Games actor Liam Hemsworth and One Direction singer Liam Payne)

And in the Golden Age? Here is a partial list of celebrity name trends from 1930-1942 that were bigger than ALL of the above:

#1. Linda (actress Darnell)
#2. Judith (singer/actress Judy Garland)
#3. Barbara (actress Stanwyck)
#4. Joan (actress Crawford)
#5. Ronald (actor Colman)
#6. Judy (Garland again; the two-year period included both Babes In Arms and The Wizard of Oz)
#7. Douglas (General MacArthur)

I call it a partial list for several reasons. The first, of course, is that we left off the queen of them all, Shirley. The second is that some of the Golden-Age celebrity names had multiple two-year periods that eclipsed all of the modern stars' bests. And the final reason is that the list is limited by my 21st-century ability to spot trendmakers of the 1930s. (For instance, Rosalie was one of the hottest names of 1938. A gold star if you instantly thought, "Well of course! The Eleanor Powell/Nelson Eddy musical Rosalie was released on Christmas Eve in 1937!")

No matter how I sliced and diced the data, I found that the Golden Age of Hollywood was also a Golden Age of Hollywood-inspired baby names. Yes, the modern data may have a "long tail" of small trends that add up, but the starlets and radio-drama heroes of the '30s left a pretty long tail of their own. At some point, too, minor media influences cross the line from true celebrity names to simply "where I happened to encounter the name."

What's more, celebrity-driven trends tended to last longer in the earlier period. Compare the fastest-rising names of 2007 vs. 1937, as calculated by the BNW hotness formula: Miley (singer/actress Cyrus) and Deanna (actress Durbin):

Two years after their peaks, Miley's popularity had dropped by 60%, while Deanna fell by just 25%. That kind of "soft landing" meant that far more babies ended up named after the earlier celebrities.

It's remarkable to think that a relatively traditional name era like the 1930s could actually follow celebrity names more than our own age does. Today's parents, after all, are constantly looking for fresh new names. But I suspect that very characteristic is what's holding celebrity names down today.

Unlike parents of the '30s and '40s, we're unwilling to be seen as following trends. For every mom today who chooses a name like Giselle because it's a movie princess (Enchanted), there's another who crosses the name off her list for the same reason. And unlike the thousands of parents who proudly named their kids after the likes of Shirley Temple and Douglas MacArthur, we aren't willing to name after anybody at all. The fear of conformity is more powerful than the lure of heroism, or of Hollywood dreams.

Comments

1
By RB
July 2, 2013 2:18 PM

This is a minor point, but I am not necessarily convinced that #2 (Judith) had anything to do with Judy Garland. She was never referred to as Judith, and since "Judy" was a stage name anyway it seems unlikely to me that parents were working backwards from Judy to a "full" name that didn't actually exist. But what do I know. I was born more than a decade after she died.

Interesting post, though!

2
July 2, 2013 2:37 PM

Laura,

I'm a little confused by these posts, because I could have sworn that in previous posts you said it was a false perception that a name like Emma was heavily influenced by the Friends baby-that it was already rising for style reasons.

Did I just imagine those posts?

I'm a Megan (with a different spelling), and I always imagined that my name rose after The Thorn Birds (I was born much before that show debuted), but I think someone on here disabused me of that idea.

I guess I'm wondering how you decide when a name is on the rise because of a celeb or because of style. I knew gobs of Masons long before the Kardashian baby.

3
July 3, 2013 7:49 AM

Can the effect of our access to data be teased out? I suspect that the fact that we have access to the Social Security list of baby names (and excellent books like BNW) strengthens our modern-day reluctance to use popular names.

4
July 3, 2013 3:05 AM

I'd love to see more data and more examples and more charts on this subject and get down to the real nitty-gritty of it all.  But I think you're right. Today, we are all very rebellious.. We don't WANT to be like anyone else, we stive to be different and stand out. I'm sure many moms will strike their #1 name off the list if someone they know (or a celebrity) used it. I know I would.

We don't want anyone to think that we named our child after a specific person  (unless it was a beloved grandmother) because everyone's tastes are so different. We live in a world of trolls. I personally don't like to tell anyone who my favorite [insert celebrity here] is, because if they dislike that person, I'd feel bad. Its easier not to say, and its easier to avoid using a name thats already "taken" than to be associated with someone specific.  

I don't know. Just my 2 cents!

5
July 3, 2013 8:19 AM

JnHsMom wrote: "I'm a little confused by these posts, because I could have sworn that in previous posts you said it was a false perception that a name like Emma was heavily influenced by the Friends baby-that it was already rising for style reasons."

Good point, I should clarify. I have indeed corrected people who have said "Oh, Emma got popular because of Friends, right?" That's not the case. Emma was already soaring up the charts, bound for the top, and was exactly the kind of name that real-life parents in the "Friends" demographic would have chosen. A decade later, it's still just as popular.

BUT, the Friends usage did give Emma an immediate boost, so it rose as much in that 1 year as it had been rising over the the course of 3 years.

That's exactly the kind of celebrity influence that affects the largest total number of babies: a high-profile boost to an already super-fashionable name. But as the Deanna/Miley graph shows, the Golden Age names come out ahead if you look at brand new celebrity-created names trends, too.

6
July 3, 2013 8:26 AM

Elizabeth T wrote: "Can the effect of our access to data be teased out?"

I am completely convinced that the availability of name statistics is shaping the statistics! Rankings make us competitive, and I've referred in the past to a "reverse arms race" in baby names, where everybody is striving to NOT be number one.

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to tease out the specific effect of the stats, because of a coincidence of timing: National baby name statistics were created in 1996, at pretty much the same moment as the rise of the internet as a mass medium. Like the popularity rankings, the internet has had the effect of inflating parents' perception of name popularity and making them try harder to be unique.

7
July 3, 2013 11:58 AM

Thanks, Laura! I had figured as much but had hoped that your magical statistician's cape would confer special powers on you. :),

8
July 3, 2013 12:24 PM

One non-Hollywood celebrity name-influencer of the 1930s was the debutante Brenda Frazier who made a huge society splash around 1937-38.  The name voyager graph shows a precipitous rise in the use of Brenda starting at that time and then continuing, helped I would guess by the comic strip Brenda Starr, through the early 50s.  And then Brenda falls off the charts just as precipitously as it rose.  Growing up I knew lots of Brendas just a little older than I am, my age, and a bit younger. I'd be quite surprised to meet a toddler Brenda today. 

I cannot imagine today the general public paying the slightest attention to a debutante, never mind a mass obsession, but in the depths of the Depression, the idea of the plutocrat had a certain fantasy appeal (see the rise of thee Monopoly board game and the popularity of the Little Orphan Annie/Daddy Warbucks characters at the same time).  In comparison the only current socialite types I can think of offhand (and that due to their reality tv appearances) are Paris Hilton and  Tinsley Mortimer.  Ther names have not achieved any sort of mass popularity--no horde of ilittle Tinsleys running around, despite the fact that Tinsley might appeal to the many who liked Ainsley.  And Paris hasn't topped the charts either, not even with the help of Paris Jackson.  Brooklyn seems to have more cachet as a place name name than Paris. OTOH names from shows like Teen Mom, which feature, um, non-socialites, have shown some traction.

9
July 3, 2013 3:19 PM

You're so right about Brenda. I met someone (a 28-year-old guy) a few weeks ago who told me that his toddler daughter is named Brenda. My immediate reaction: Family name? Yes, it was his mother-in-law's name. I just couldn't imagine someone today picking the name without a sentimental reason.

10
July 4, 2013 1:17 PM

Well, though, look at the Kardashians....

I think maybe we don't really Have socialities the way we used to.

 

11
July 4, 2013 9:05 PM

I doubt whether actual (old money) socialites would give the Kardashians the time of day. We do still have socialites of the Social Register type, but the general public no longer knows much about them.  People in the Social Register deliberately keep a low profile.  Old school cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans have hereditary "aristocracies," but the general populace doesn't even know who they are.  I once asked my students in New Orleans who belonged to the upper class, and they named doctors, lawyers, politicians, that is to say, members of the upper middle class, despite the fact that the genuine New Orleans upper class parades in the streets wearing masks (or used to).  In Philadelphia the socialites belong to the Assembly and the men to the First City Troop Cavalry which is a private unit of the Pennsylvania Army National Giard, with membership restricted to those nominated by members and elected by secret ballot.  The First CIty Troop dates back to before the Revoluntionary War, and to belong your family better date back that far too.  When I was in my twenties I worked at an old line insurance company in Phildalphis, and one of my co-workers wore the rosette of the First City Troop, and because I was the only one who knew what it was he tolerated me....

12
July 9, 2013 8:12 PM

I'm just tickled to see our DD's name, Deanna, mentioned in a baby name blog.  Our Deanna is eight years old.  I've only met two other Deanna's who are around her age.  It's kind of like the toddler named Brenda, which happens to be my mother's name!  

I don't think the individual names are more popular across the board now that they used to be, just as I don't think there is more death & detruction that there used to be.  We have 24 news now & in past years we didn't have television & some rarely even saw a newspaper or read a book.  I think certain names might be very popular regionally because we hear them more & decide to use them more. 

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I have indeed corrected people who have said "Oh, Emma got popular because of Friends, right?" That's not the case. Emma was already soaring up the charts, bound for the top

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The Thorn Birds (I was born much before that show debuted), but I think someone on here disabused me of that idea.

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