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How were American girls named?

Rarer names provide better clues of role models, so simply understanding where a name came from may give clues about the family. It has been the American custom to name a child at birth or quickly after. While some countries required the use of state-approved given names, Americans could freely choose names for their children. These choices could express the parents’ wish to reaffirm their religious, ethnic, or familial devotion. Conversely, the name given to a child may indicate nothing more than some unknown happy memory for the parents.

Naming patterns (where parents named children for specific relatives depending on their sex and birth order) would be valuable to genealogists if used consistently by all families. Researchers could then use a list of children to create family trees for the parents. In reality, they were rarely used, especially in rural areas. Names came from a variety of sources or were invented. Some notable examples of this are:

  • Alleen (combination of Aileen and Ellen)

  • Beryl (gem and flower names were popular in the 1800s)

  • Cecelia (patron saint of music)

  • Claudelia (femininization of Claude)

  • Lillie Isle (for an idyllic place)

  • Livewell (Puritan)

  • Maybelline (brand)

  • Parmela (Pamela, as spoken with a southern US accent)

  • Sarah (biblical)

  • Savannah (for Savannah, Georgia)

  • Serafina (spelling variant)


Name influences

The south used more unique names than the north or midwestern states. Southern women often used double names (Mary Ella, spoken as a single name) or combined names (Alleen as a combination of Allen and Ellen).They were also likely to be named diminutives instead of full names, such as Kathy, or traditionally male nicknames (Willie, Johnnie). Virginia was more likely to use traditional English names than the northeast, which frequently used Puritan names.

Names in immigrant communities were not necessarily reflective of beloved names in the immigrants’ homeland – stereotypical names were avoided by some families trying to assimilate. Parents (usually Irish or Jewish) named children familiar American names because they felt they were regular Americans and wished to be perceived as such. Other immigrant communities were famously insular, such as the Scots of Pennsylvania, which maintained a strong national identity, maintaining regular and frequent use of names representative of their homeland. They also imported some character names to the US, such as Sir Walter Scott's Rebecca. Germans also immigrated heavily into Pennsylvania and maintained a solid attachment to their language. Children in German families may all share a first name like Johann or Anna, often using their middle names.

Native Americans are renowned for using clausal names such as Melvin Drinkwater. Their names are defined by tribe-specific naming patterns and rituals, which must be researched individually to provide meaning. Black house servants were often given classical or historical names as a cruel joke or to make their owners appear more highly educated. After emancipation, many had the opportunity to choose new names (first and last) and sometimes chose clausal names like Hardtimes or King Bee.

Some religious groups like the Puritans strongly preferred Old Testament biblical names. Vocabulary words and phrases and virtue names(such as Prudence and Thankful) were other indicators of Puritan influence. As Puritan popularity waned, locals started using more traditional English names because they chose names not as Puritans but as members of their communities. Old Testament names were never singular to Puritans and have long been popular with Jewish people. New Testament names are more likely to belong to Protestants and Catholics, but disparate communities use biblical names for different reasons. In the Southern US, Old Testament names such as Rebecca, Rachel, Ruth, and Abigail were less popular. In contrast, non-biblical saint names such as Margaret, Katherine, Alice, Barbara, and Winifred were more popular, even as they disappeared in New England.

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