Back When Names Were Made from Wood
Have you ever wondered about Dagwood Bumstead?
OK, at first glance the husband in the classic comic strip "Blondie" may not seem worth pondering over. Dagwood is a suburban sad sack. His best skills are napping and preparing oversized sandwiches. As for his humbly goofy name, it just underlines his humbly goofy nature.
But back when the strip and the character were created, at the twilight of the Roaring Twenties, Dagwood was a different sort of fellow entirely. He was a wealthy young playboy, a scion of privilege who shocked his genteel parents by bringing home a -- *gasp* -- flapper!
Yes, the name Dagwood was selected to sound upper-crusty, not sad-sacky. And it wouldn't have seemed so very unlikely a name at the time. If the young rake Bumstead were 18 in the comic's first panels, that would mean he was born in 1912, the peak of America's "wood" years. Take a look at the history of names containing that four-letter string:
(Editorial note: it's a bit tricky to write about such an erect graph of "wood." But let's all cling to our better natures and soldier on.)
The king of the wood-en names was Woodrow, which peaked at the time of President Woodrow Wilson's 1912 election and again after the U.S. entered the First World War. (Wilson's full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, after his maternal grandfather Thomas Woodrow.) The name style, though, was much bigger than one man.
Woodrow and several other wood names already ranked among America's top thousand for boys before Wilson even ran for his first public office. By the time he hit the White House, nine or ten of the wood names were making the list every year. Elwood was especially popular, alongside kindred spirits like Norwood, Glenwood and Durwood. Beyond the top thousand lurked many more wood names, including dozens of boys named Stanwood, Woodfin, and the immortal Edwood.
Durwood and friends are so far outside the contemporary taste zone that it can be hard to imagine how they sounded to parents a century ago. I think it's a fair guess, though, that they were perceived as fancy and sophisticated back then. Other hefty British-isles surnames like Talmadge and Carlyle certainly were, and the "wood" names follow a similar historical popularity curve.
My guess is that the name Dagwood Bumstead was designed to push the upper-crust surname style to its comical extreme -- just as the "Blondie" was an exaggeration of the wild, capricious and dizzy-headed flapper. But both of those impressions are long gone, along with the age when names were made of "wood."