Genealogy Tips: Popular First Names

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the most popular first names in the U.S. over the past century, decade by decade. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

What’s your first name? Do you have a common one like Mary or John? What influenced your parents to choose your name? Were you named after a famous person or someone whom your parents admired? Do you have a name that sounds old-fashioned to today’s ears? Maybe your name is more unusual and reflects the time period you were born in. The same may be true for your ancestor’s unusual first name.

An article about names, State newspaper article 1 November 1998
State (Columbia, South Carolina), 1 November 1998, page 57

Social Security Administration & Names

One of the authorities for name popularity in the United States is the Social Security Administration. After all, they have a record of almost every American citizen since Social Security numbers were issued in 1936 (while it once was commons for individuals to apply for a Social Security number when they started working, today’s babies are issued a number when they are born). The information the Social Security Administration has gathered includes people born since 1879.

The Social Security Website

The Social Security Administration website includes a number of tools for finding popular first names. The Popular Baby Names by Decade tool allows you to search names by decade, starting with the 1880s and continuing on to the 2010s. This tool provides you with the top 200 male and female given names for each decade. Social Security information from those born in 1879 to present day is used to generate these lists.

I have to admit I was surprised to see that my name (spelled differently) was the 73rd most popular name in the 1960s. It turns out that 52,366 girls were named Gina in that decade. I was less surprised to see what the top five names for boys (Michael, David, John, James, and Robert) and for girls (Lisa, Mary, Susan, Karen, and Kimberly) were. Looking at each decade from the 1880s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the most popular girl’s name, Mary, fell to second place.

An article about names, New Orleans States newspaper article 6 September 1924
New Orleans States (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 September 1924, page 6

What were the five most popular first names in the 1880s? For boys it was John, William, James, George, and Charles. For girls it was Mary, Anna, Emma, Elizabeth, and Margaret. Fifty years later, the most popular first names for 1930 vary slightly for boys but are almost totally different for girls. For boys, the top five names in 1930 were Robert, James, John, William, and Richard. For girls, the names were Mary, Betty, Barbara, Shirley, and Patricia.

The Social Security Website Has Another Names Tool: Popular Names by State

The Social Security Administration’s website Popular Names by State displays the 100 most popular names for your state and year of birth. Please note that this tool’s earliest year is 1960. If a listing of 100 popular names is not enough for you, the Social Security website allows you to download a list of 1,000 most common names. Download options include nationwide and state-specific information in a zip file that includes an instructions file.

Times change and so does the popularity of names. The top names for 2015 don’t include Mary or John: instead, Noah and Emma are the most popular names, with Liam and Olivia coming in second. But because popularity is fickle, it’s just a matter of time before Mary and John become popular again.

Don’t just research your first name, dig into your last name meaning to uncover details about your family history and where they lived. For example, did you know that the last name Williams originated in medieval England, Wales, France, and Italy?

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