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Names have changed a lot over the years

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If you were to examine a list of the most popular names given to children born in America over the past year, you might have a difficult time finding many, if any, little girls who have been named Fannie, Beatrice or Gertrude or boys who have names like Durwood, Oscar or Wilbur.

You may know people with these names or even have one yourself, but if you do, the chances are good you are at least middle-aged or older.

While there is nothing wrong whatsoever with any of these names, they are among a larger group that due to the passage of time and natural attrition, their popularity and frequency of use has gradually died out.

These and others listed below were more commonplace for children born in the era between 1920-50.

Among other first names previously given to girls that are now seldom heard are Agnes, Lucille, Gladys, Myrtle, Mildred, Louise, Ethel, Bernice, Geraldine, Nellie, Alma and Vera.

Also, Maxine, Wilma, Clara, Hazel, Norma, Florence, Josephine, Nannie, Bertha, Ida, Bessie and Nina.

And Eula, Irma, Eunice, Geneva, Genevieve, Nellie, Irene, Lottie, Isabel and Pearl.

Other boys’ names from the earlier era include Ralph, Clarence, Vernon, Benjamin, Roland, Wilton, Jessie, Luther, Horace and Delbert.

This situation of first names becoming obsolete from generation to generation is commonplace, just like today’s popular names will one day be relics of the past.

The names listed above may not have necessarily been the most popular of the time, yet they were able to endure.

According to the U.S. census records, the 10 most popular names given to newborn boys throughout the 1920s, beginning with most popular, were John, Robert, James, William, Charles, George, Joseph, Richard, Edward and Frank.

The 10 most popular names given to newborn girls throughout the 1920s were Mary, Dorothy, Helen, Margaret, Ruth, Virginia, Elizabeth, Anna Mildred and Betty.

Going back to census records in 1850, the most popular names in order given to boys were John, William, James, George, Henry, Thomas, Charles, Joseph, Samuel and David.

In the same year, the most popular names for girls were Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth, Martha, Margaret, Nancy, Ann, Jane, Eliza and Catherine.

With that in mind, let’s further examine the names Mary and John, two that have definitely endured.

Mary was the most common name given to girls born in America every year from when records were first kept beginning in 1800 except for a six-year period between 1947 through 1952, when it fell behind Linda.

Mary fell out of the top 100 most popular names in 2009.

John was the most popular boys’ name every year from the 1880s until the 1920s, when it was replaced at the top spot by Robert, although it continued to hang around in the top three every year until the 1960s.

By this past year, the name Mary had fallen to No. 176 in popularity for girls’ names while the name John was still hanging on at No. 37, meaning both are gradually nearing extinction.

When reading any of the above lists, it seems clear that names were not that important and parents in these earlier times didn’t care very much or spend a great deal of time trying to come up with a unique, catchy or trendy name or one that did not require having to spell it out each time it was to have been mentioned.

Those children and their parents were probably too involved in basic survival and providing for their families.

Besides, for most families, particularly the larger one, chances were pretty good there would be either a John or a Mary among the names given to children, so it didn’t matter when or in which order they were named.

I can’t help but imagine what it might have been like for teachers in the very early years on the first day of class in first grade as they met their new students and leaned how many Marys or Johns they would have in their classrooms.

Keith Barnes is a reporter and columnist for the Johnstonian News. Email him at