J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Naming Names

In my recent sampling of historical fiction set in the Revolutionary period, I see authors having difficulty giving their characters authentic names.

Sometimes they fall into the trap of using given names familiar to us today but not in use then, such as “Suzanne” instead of “Susanna.” But more often writers go the other way and choose names that resonate with so much quaint historicity that we rarely see them today, such as “Norbert” or “Tristram”—but people of Revolutionary times didn’t see those names, either.

The problem is that the most common given names in Revolutionary times are quite familiar. Daniel Scott Smith showed this in a study of Massachusetts’s 1771 tax lists, published in the William & Mary Quarterly in 1994.

Among men, the names most frequently found were: John, Samuel, Joseph, William, Jonathan, Thomas, James, Benjamin, Daniel, and David.

Among women, the top names were: Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, Lydia, Ann (or Anne or Anna), Rebecca, Martha, and Ruth.

All of those names are familiar today and have been familiar for a long time, meaning they don’t evoke any particular era. We have to go down the list to #11 for men and #12 for women before finding names we rarely use now: Ebenezer and Mehetabel.

What’s more, common names were more common in 1771—meaning that more of the men and women you met had the same popular given names. About 46% of all taxpaying men had one of those top-ten names listed above.

Among women, there was even less diversity. Slightly over two-thirds of all female taxpayers in Massachusetts shared the ten given names above. If you’ve ever done genealogy in this period, it feels like half of all the women are named Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hannah, or Abigail. Smith’s number-crunching showed that’s actually a slight understatement. The correct figure is 52.8%.

In contrast, in the decades since World War 2, and especially in the decades since 1980, American parents have chosen an increasingly wider range of names, Sam Weinger reported through Medium. Notably, female names are now far more diverse than male names.

In 2014, a FiveThirtyEight article stated, “almost 30 percent of Americans have a given name that appears in the top 100 list.” Back in 1771, 30% of Massachusetts male taxpayers had a given name appearing in the top 5 list, and 27% of women were named either Mary or Elizabeth.


adkmilkmaid said...

This problem of the unfailing use of these familiar names in a small community is that names repeated endlessly. This complicates research today. I have been digging into one Joseph Hoyt, Jr., born in 1750. Straightforward? No. In legal records, he was Joseph Hoyt 5, meaning that at the time of his birth he was the 5th living Joseph Hoyt in the town. (There were of course many more in each of the neighboring towns.) At the time, legally, "Junior" actually meant "number 2," so "Joseph Hoyt, Jr." referred to a different man entirely. Thus the man I am searching for is regularly misidentified.

Before the widespread use of middle names, and with the huge families of the period, one solution I have seen used in Connecticut is giving boys the mother's maiden name as a first name. Thus, "Scofield Hoyt," and, across town,"Hoyt Scofield." My favorite case of this was shown in the Congregational minister, Blackleach Burritt. (Imagine naming your beautiful baby "Blackleach"!) This habit of maiden-names-as-first-names survived much longer in the South, where there was less financial/land pressure to emigrate away from the family in the early 19th century.

Gene Procknow said...

Fascinating article! It would be great to hear more tips for writing historical fiction. It's a difficult genre.