We talked with Pamela Redmond Satran, best-selling author of more than 20 books, and one of the baby name experts behind Nameberry, to get her take on baby names that made the Top 50 most popular list more than 100 years ago — and have barely been seen since.
Peak of popularity: #22 in 1894 & 1915
Last made the Top 50: 1957
A German variant of the name Charles, meaning “free man,” Carl graces some stellar notable people including Carl Weathers, the football player turned action movie star, and Carl Sagan, the wildly intelligent astronomer/astrophysicist who played a pivotal role in the American space program and brought us the original version of the miniseries Cosmos.
“I think this was a casualty of anti-German sentiment,” says Satran. “I’ve also heard Carl as a slang term for vomit.” Yikes.
Peak of popularity: #5 in 1880
Last made the Top 50: 1921
Contrary to most likely guesses, Minnie became popular way before the Walt Disney cartoon character of the same name — and her sidekick Mickey — ever graced a comic strip. (They were first drawn in 1928.)
“While we tend to think of nickname-names as a contemporary phenomenon, in fact they were wildly popular at the turn of the last century and Minnie was among them,” says Satran. “Blame its demise on the Mouse followed by the skirt….though this is one we can see coming back. It’s adorable!”
Peak of popularity: #18 in 1893
Last made the Top 50: 1948
The unpopularity of this name leaves us baffled. Roy feels manly (Rob Roy, as played by Liam Neeson!), reminds us of delicious fried chicken (Roy Rogers!), and is eminently easy to spell. So what went wrong with Roy?
“I like this name,” says Satran. “Roy’s late 19th century popularity was sparked by the novel Rob Roy, but it’s difficult to pinpoint why its star faded, as it has no intrinsically unpleasing sound or unsavory association. And it is still solidly in the Top 1000.”
Peak of popularity: #6 in 1929
Last made the Top 50: 1945
Our immediate association: glamorous, blonde-bombshell, singer-dancer-actress extraordinaire, Doris Day. And yet, we’d be hard-pressed to imagine a current-day grandbaby wearing that name.
“There was a fashion in the 1920s for classical girls names that end in ‘s’ — Doris, Phyllis, Lois — that sounded fresh and new in that moment, but never since,” says Satran.
Peak of popularity: #25 in 1929
Last made the Top 50: 1933
For decades, the only Herbs most people know live in their kitchen cabinets. Since our illustrious 31st President, Herbert Hoover, the name has retreated to the sidelines of U.S. nurseries.”In its heyday, Herbert had two powerful qualities bolstering its popularity — namesake Herbert Hoover, who took office as President in 1929, and the oh-so-cool ‘er’ sound,” says Satran. “By 1933, Herbert Hoover left office [his reputation sullied by the Great Depression], and the ‘er’ sound was on its way out.”
Peak of popularity: #6 in 1896
Last made the Top 50: 1927
Unless Ethel Kennedy, Ethel Merman, or Lucy Ricardo’s best friend Ethel Mertz are considered current members of pop culture, it’s tough to think of an Ethel in our daily lives under the age of 90.
“The fame and glamour of Ethel Barrymore gave this name a lot of style value,” says Satran. “While it’s still pretty far out, celebrity Lily Allen named her baby Ethel. Geek Chic? Or seriously on its way back in?”
Peak of popularity: #23 in 1893
Last made the Top 50: 1932
There’s just something about Ernest. Maybe it’s too… earnest? Too close to the Muppet name, Ernie? Indelibly attached to a Borgnine and a Hemingway? Something about that name feels undoubtedly old-fashioned.
“That ‘er’ sound was very fashionable in the early part of the 20th century and very unfashionable later — maybe because of the rise of the word ‘nerd’?”
Peak of popularity: #6 in 1918
Last made the Top 50: 1937
Aside from the 1945 film Mildred Pierce, which won Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar, and a 2011 HBO miniseries of the same name, Mildred has been a distinctly under-the-radar name for at least three generations.
Though we get a slightly depressing vibe off this name — run of the “Mil,” experiencing “dred” — Satran says the U.K. is once again warming to Mildred’s diminutive variation: “We do see the resurgence of the nickname Millie in Scotland, England and Wales, and it’s back on the Top 1000 in the U.S., too.”
Peak of popularity: #32 in 1893
Last made the Top 50: 1921
Would it be too mean-spirited to classify this name-of-old as “hokey”? All we can think of is children’s glue and cartoon characters!
“Thanks to Elmer Fudd, Elmer the Cow, and even Elmer’s glue, this name has become a bit of a joke — the quintessential so-far-out-it-will-always-be-out name,” according to Nameberry.
Peak of popularity: #10 in 1893
Last made the Top 50: 1916
With all due respect to the beautiful, dynamic Berthas of the world, the words “big” and “Bertha” just seem to flow together. Wikipedia defines the phrase as “a euphonious term for an unusually large example of a class of object,” most notably used as a nickname for a super-heavy German gun developed just before World War I.
“Germanic and medieval names were fashionable in the late 19th century and Bertha was among them,” says Satran. “World War I and the beginning of long hostilities with Germany put an end to all that.”