The World’s Largest Baby Name Factory
The U.S. Federal government’s Social Security Administration (SSA) has kept careful records of all new baby names in the U.S. from the 1880’s to the present. This database is available online for free for anyone to look at (you can find it by Googling on ‘social security popular baby names’). We’ve gone through the records and studied them can now share with you the fun and sometimes surprising results!
I studied the data at the SSA site, looking at the name popularity for the last 120 years: from 1887 through 2006.
Most Popular Names of All Time
When you look at baby name popularity over time you see that all names go through cycles, gradually increasing and decreasing over time.
To determine the most popular of all time, I decided that we should see which names have consistently been in the top 20, decade after decade. Which baby names were in the top 20 for the entire time from 1887 to the present?
Among boys the most popular are John (1st in 1887 and 20th today); William (2nd to 10th); James (3rd to 16th); and Joseph (7th to 11th).
There are fewer girls name that have stayed consistently popular across the decades. The best candidate I could find was Elizabeth, which ranked 4th, 21st and 11th in the 1880s, 1950s and 2000s. Its quite noticeable how girls names change more than boys names. Here are just some of the most popular baby girl names from the 1880s that are no where to be seen today: Minnie, Ida, Bertha, Clara, Florence, Bessie and Ethel. Of these only Clara appears in the top 1000 these days (position 260), and I personally think it a beautiful name deserving of more use. I don’t miss the other names much besides Florence, which has wonderful connotations.
Then there are the names that were very popular in the past but are used much less often today. These can be a good source of unique names for your child today but where the unique name will have a good dose of nostalgia. I call these the fallen stars.
Among boy names the stand out fallen star is George, which was #4 in 1887 but only 153rd most popular today. Charles went from 5th to 60th; Robert from 11th to 47th (but enjoyed a great run as #1 from 1924 to 1939); Thomas from 9th to 51st; Richard from 25th to 99th (but had a strong mid-century surge peaking at #5 in 1940s).
Girl names that have fallen out of favor include Mary, which was the #1 baby girl name in the 1880s but is only 55th in the 2000s. The most dramatic fall of any name is Minnie (yes, of Minnie Mouse fame), which was 6th most popular in the 1880s but has not even ranked anywhere in the top 1000 since 1971 when it was 951st. Apparently no one wants to be named after a mouse!
Nouveau Top Names
Lastly there are the names that are all the rage today but that are unique and strange and new to our ear – because they were not at all common in the past. Heading the list is Jacob, today’s #1 most popular boy name but it was only 56th in 1887 and hit a real low spot of 367th in 1962.
The name Michael has had real legs for over half a century now. It was 48th a 120 years ago but then climbed steadily and enjoyed an unprecedented streak as the #1 boy name from 1954 to 1998 (except for one year when it was #2 in 1960). Think of that – 43 years as the #1 boys name! Today Michael is #2.
A couple more new top boys names are Joshua: 247th to 3rd (but a low spot at 730th in 1929!), and Matthew which has gone from 123rd to 5th.
Emily from 98th to 1st with a mid-century low of 272nd in 1962.
Greatest Comeback Awards
No name better demonstrates the power of fashion cycles than the girls name Emma – it was 4th most popular in 1887, declined in popularity steadily until it was quite rare from the 1940s to the 1980s (e.g., it was 463rd most popular in 1963), and gained rapidly starting in the late 1980s, moving from 211th in 1986 to 2nd in 2006. Emma deserves a close second as it was 3rd in the 1880s and is 11th in the 200s but descended to 213th in the 1950s.
Most Improved Award
The girl baby name Madison gets the prize for most improved ranking in the shortest time. In 1985 it ranked a very low 625th, and in 2006 it was the 2nd most popular name – it moved up an impressive 623 positions in just 21 years.