The presidential curve
Up through the mid-20th Century, a new American president was almost always immortalized by a crowd of newborn namesakes. Every presidential surname except Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchanan and Eisenhower has made the top-1000 name list at some point in the past 125 years. Today, though, parents are a little more wary about granting namesakes. They wait to see how the presidency is going to play out before committing a child's name to the cause. (The hundreds of boys named Harding in the early '20s would probably support this prudent approach.)
But presidential names as a whole are more popular today than ever before. Far, far more popular. Here's the overall presidential curve:
Aside from Arthur (which is kind of a cheat -- a classic first name rather than a converted surname), the presidential names used to be marginal. Now they're mainstream.
So what's the allure? I'll hazard a guess it's not just American patriotism, given all the Australian girls named Madison and the Canadian boys named Carter. And how many parents of a Tyler could even name that president's political party? But even when the presidential link is weak, its influence is there shaping the name's style. The presidential names epitomize what parents like about the surname style: names that feel familiar and substantial, but fresher than the classic English given names.
Here's the historical graph showing current popularity (for both sexes) vs. presidential chronology:
While it's tempting to read a lot into that curve, I think the results say more about style than politics. Most of the top choices fit stylish categories that I've discussed before, such as tradesman names (Taylor, Carter) and surnames that contract to traditional nicknames (Jefferson, Harrison). Meanwhile the cumbersome but strongly historical names like Washington and Roosevelt have disappeared. Perhaps most surprising is the recent scarcity of Lincolns. That's a swift, fashionable name with a strong nickname and even stronger heritage. Look for a comeback soon.