Most popular baby names from the Gilded Age
Mark Twain coined the term "Gilded Age” to describe the period between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the next century, where tumultuous social and political changes were masked by impressive technological innovations and the prominence of the United States on an international scale. The time was marked by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which allowed Americans to traverse the country with relative ease and speed and even resettle in a different area if they chose to do so.
The Gilded Age also marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which sped up the rate of urbanization and saw more people working in factories than on farms for the first time in the country’s history.
As these facets of culture shifted, so too did various trends associated with the time, including popular names. Many of the names popular in the Gilded Age followed the so-called “hundred-year rule,” which is the idea that the same names rise and wane in popularity over 100 years. As such, some of the most common baby names at the end of the 19th century were names that had simply resurfaced from the previous century.
Writer Edith Wharton, who was born in 1862 and died in 1937, was one of the first people to write about the Gilded Age, and the names she gave the characters in her novels greatly influenced the names that parents chose for her children. Some—like the name Bertha—became immensely popular, while other names she gave her characters largely existed only in the text of her novels, like Effie, Abner, Newland, and Agathon.
To determine the most popular baby names of the Gilded Age, Stacker used data from the Social Security Administration’s Baby Names Database, which includes baby name popularity going back to 1880.
Historians generally associate the Gilded Age with the 1870s through the 1890s, but for this story, we used data from 1880 to 1900 to rank Gilded Age baby names. Each slide also includes the most popular and least popular years for each name (i.e. the years in which the most and least babies were given this name) and the name’s rank in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.
Read on to find out which names were most fashionable at the turn of the century—some of which could be making a reappearance today.
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#25. Girl: Gertrude
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 33,579 (Average: 1,599 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #23; 2,580 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1880 (Rank: #25; 787 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #5,423 (23 babies born)
The name Gertrude has its roots in Germany and means, “strength of a spear.” Although the name peaked in popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it actually has historic origins. Gertrude was a goddess in Norse mythology and was the name of Hamlet’s mother in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Gertrude peaked on the baby name list in the U.S. in 1900 at #23, during the era of writer Gertrude Stein and actress Gertrude Lawrence.
#25. Boy: Ernest
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 15,589 (Average: 742 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #30; 1,012 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1881 (Rank: #25; 571 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #976 (210 babies born)
Ernest was introduced in England by the German House of Hanover in the 18th century, but the name didn’t become popular until later. Writer Oscar Wilde famously named one of the characters Ernest in his 1895 play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Although Ernest Hemingway’s writing didn’t permeate American culture until the 1900s, his parents likely seized on the resurgence of the name when he was born in 1899, just a year before the name’s peak popularity.
#24. Girl: Sarah
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 33,924 (Average: 1,615 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #37; 2,055 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1881 (Rank: #12; 1,226 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #67 (3,734 babies born)
As a biblical name, Sarah has consistently been a common name for girls. In the Old Testament, Sarah was the wife of Abraham, although her name was Sarai until God was said to have changed it when she was age 90. After the Protestant Reformation, Sarah became increasingly common in the Western world. French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was born in 1844, also helped to popularize the name.
#24. Boy: Richard
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 15,725 (Average: 749 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #24; 1,141 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1891 (Rank: #27; 609 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #187 (2,119 babies born)
The name Richard means “strong power,” and it comes from two Germanic words: “ric” and “hard.” Historically, the name is most commonly associated with King Richard I of England, who led the Third Holy Crusade of the 12th century. However, the name Richard became popular in the early 1900s thanks to a number of key sports figures, including Swedish figure skater Richard Johansson, who earned the silver medal at the 1908 Olympics.
#23. Girl: Rose
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 35,043 (Average: 1,669 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #18; 2,845 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1880 (Rank: #30; 700 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #123 (2,432 babies born)
Rose is a shortened version of a Germanic name that first came into use in the Middle Ages in England, and like other names of the time, was thought to be a version of “ros,” meaning “horse.” However, by the 1900s, it became more and more popular to name girls after flowers, and Rose became a common choice for parents looking to name their daughters in accordance with that tradition.
#23. Boy: Joe
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 15,758 (Average: 750 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #22; 1,179 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1891 (Rank: #29; 584 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #695 (345 babies born)
Joe is often a nickname for Joseph, a biblical name, and the name Joseph itself means “Jehovah increases.” But in the early 1900s, the name Joe on its own became popular, especially as pop culture figures like Joe DiMaggio became household names. In 1912, the #2 song of the year was “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” by Bob Roberts, which further helped popularize the name.
#22. Girl: Martha
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 35,763 (Average: 1,703 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #28; 2,437 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1880 (Rank: #16; 1,040 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #794 (341 babies born)
Another biblical name, Martha means “the lady” or “mistress.” In the New Testament, Martha was the sister of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany. The name wasn’t commonplace in England until after the Protestant Reformation but became popular stateside when Martha Washington served as the United States’ first First Lady.
#22. Boy: David
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 15,787 (Average: 752 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #32; 885 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1899 (Rank: #32; 646 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #22 (9,697 babies born)
David has been a consistently popular name since the Middle Ages—it can trace its roots to King David from The Bible—and even remains one of the most popular modern-day names in England, Wales, Spain, and the United States. The name David also became common in the late 1800s and early 1900s after Charles Dickens published “David Copperfield” in 1850.
#21. Girl: Mabel
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 37,596 (Average: 1,790 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #25; 2,509 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1880 (Rank: #22; 808 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #435 (722 babies born)
Mabel is a shortened version of the name Amabel, both of which were popular names in the medieval 12th century in Europe. However, the use of the name declined after the 14th century and only rose in popularity again in the 19th century as medieval names started to become trendy during the Victorian era. William Wordsworth also used the name Mabel in his 1835 sonnet “St. Catherine of Ledbury,” which may have contributed to its rising usage during the Gilded Age.
#21. Boy: Roy
- Total Gilded Age babies with this name: 17,559 (Average: 836 born per year)
- Most popular year: 1900 (Rank: #21; 1,215 babies born)
- Least popular year: 1881 (Rank: #34; 440 babies born)
- 2018 rank: #541 (514 babies born)
The name Roy is thought to be the anglicized version of the Gaelic name Ruadh, which meant “red,” and was often used as a nickname for people with red hair. Fittingly, Scottish outlaw and Roy namesake Rob Roy, who was often referred to as the Scottish Robin Hood, also had red hair. Sir Walter Scott memorialized Rob Roy in his 1818 novel of the same name, and William Wordsworth also penned poems about the outlaw, giving rise to the name’s popularity in the early 1900s.
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