Name Inspiration: The Funky, Eclectic 1930’s

With the 1930’s, there’s the Norman Rockwell version and the Dorothea Lange version. These two artists offer a window into the Great Depression. Few people who lived through the Great Depression are around to share the day-to-day realities.

What remains, the books, newspapers, magazines, and films, suggest the Great Depression was a time of style transition. Clothing styles were transitioning from the flashy flapper style of the 1920’s to more conservative dress. Hemlines went from short to long.

Just as the Great Depression was a transient time for clothing, it was a transient time for names. The culture struggled to find an identity, as reflected in a crop of names in flux.

Our modern baby names are also in flux as parents seek out more unique names, making the 1930’s a perfect period for inspiration. There is also timing. People born in this decade are reaching octogenarian status, poising their names for revival in few short years.

This same transient nature that makes the Great Depression trends fascinating, also makes the period difficult to pin down and sum up. Names were either on the way up or down. For example, Karen charted (hit the top 1000) for the first time and Susan saw a tremendous rise, but both names had a few decades before they would reach their peak. Homespun turn of the 20th century names, names that are once again popular, were on their way out. Adeline, Emily, Ruby, and Sophie, were dropping – in some cases dramatically.

Consequently, finding names that peaked during the Great Depression proved challenging. The goal was to find names that embodied the time. Many of the names on this list were popular on babies born in the 1930’s, but not all of them. To make the cut, if a name had ever charted (reached the top 1000 since 1880), it must have peaked during the 1930’s, even if it didn’t peak that high. But exceptions had to be made for some late 1920’s names that almost maintained their popularity through the 1930’s. Among names that have never charted, liberties were taken.

Some of these names, such as Ramona, recently used on a Hollywood baby, are beginning to make some headway among taste-makers. The time is right for these names to come out from hiding. Girls are coded pink, boys are coded blue, and unisex are coded green. The yellow code is for names with links to related articles about the name.

BilliePeaked on both boys and girls in 1929; stayed at its peak for girls in 1930
RobbiePeaked for girls during the 1930’s and would later peak for boys in the 1960’s
Tommie – Peaked for girls during the 1930’s and previously peaked for boys in 1909

There were names I badly wanted on this list, but couldn’t include due to the stringent requirements. Based on the numbers, Audrey, Harold and Leonard are really 1920’s names. Judy is really a 1940’s name, but undoubtedly was launched by Judy Garland’s 1939 performance in The Wizard of Oz.

Billie, Delores and Lois almost didn’t make it, all of them peaking in 1930, and gently declining the rest of the decade. They’re on the list because I feel they represent the decade, and suspect many of you agree.

Based on the statistical requirements, Phyllis and Ramona shouldn’t technically be on this list. Both names peaked in late 1920’s but almost maintained their 1920’s peaks in the 1930’s. Phyllis stayed close to the #30 spot and Ramona stayed in the top 200’s until the 1940’s. Exceptions were made because these names were among the few that remained steadily popular for the entire decade. Phyllis, especially, is one of the best representatives of the 1930’s. This list would be incomplete without it.

Wallis, which shares the same -llis ending with Phyllis and was the name of a prominent 1930’s person, Wallis Simpson, never became popular but so clearly fits the style of the time.

The overall impression left by this list is that the 1930’s were an eclectic time. The eclectic nature of these names leaves something for every taste. Franklin, Ramona, Sylvia and Wallis already show signs of becoming stylish. In time, I can see Beverly, Geraldine, and Marilyn being sought by artsy parents for their clunky glamour.

With Betty and Sally, history could easily repeat itself. Back in the 1930’s these nickname-names followed their homespun granny counterparts. What are Betty and Sally’s homespun granny counterparts? Ellie and Maggie, names enjoying their second lives today. When parents tire of Ellie and Maggie, Betty and Sally could once again be seen as fresh alternatives.

Readers: Which 1930’s style names do you feel have the most comeback potential? (Multiple votes are allowed.)

Photo credit: Norman Rockwell / Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Worker / Mae West


  1. Fascinating article! I’ve noticed a resurgence in many of the Depression-era names, and I agree – I think our own time and the 1930s have quite a bit in common, sociologically.

    More and more I’m starting to think we are going back to a more eclectic naming style. I see older people (Baby Boomers and a bit older) saying how modern baby naming is getting “weird”, because they are comparing it to the conformist Post-War era.

    I see it more as names returning to their normal state.

    • I never considered that the conformist names of the Baby Boomer and Gen X crowd was actually an anomaly. There is one fact about the 30’s I had omitted: The number 1 name, by a long shot, as it had been for decades, was Mary. When considering any decade prior to the 1960’s, I look beyond Mary to asses what the styles were, but perhaps the #1 presence of Mary suggests our own times are even more experimental than the 1930’s.

      The U.S. top 1000 names for 2011 are due out any day. I thought they were supposed to come out yesterday, but unless it’s on my end, I still see 2010 data on the U.S. Social Security site. I have been cleaning my cache. Anyway, I’m curious to see the #1 girl name. It has been shifting the past couple of years after years of Emily.


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