What's In A Name?

140 Years Ago, These Adorable Retro Baby Names Swept The Nation

The most popular baby names in 1883 provide some retro inspiration — and a reminder that some names are forever.

Above shot of a newborn baby and mother calming him with her hand
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Parents looking for the perfect name for their little one — one that is a little off the beaten path and slightly off-trend — might turn to something called the “100-Year Rule.” This rule says that names that were most popular when our grandparents were born are usually primed to become popular again by the time we’re naming our own children. But if you’re eager to really set your own trend, why not go another generation or two back? Like, say, to 1883?

Lucky for you, the U.S. Social Security Administration has a list of the most popular baby names back to 1880 — so it’s really easy to see what retro baby names were super popular before the 20th century came around. Although we can’t be certain these names will surge in popularity again, vintage-inspired baby names are always good to consider — or at least give you a starting point when you’re considering a unique, vintage, or classic baby girl or baby boy name.

Top 20 most popular boy names from 140 years ago:

  1. John
  2. William
  3. James
  4. Charles
  5. George
  6. Frank
  7. Joseph
  8. Henry
  9. Robert
  10. Thomas
  11. Edward
  12. Harry
  13. Walter
  14. Arthur
  15. Fred
  16. Albert
  17. Samuel
  18. Clarence
  19. Louis
  20. David

There isn’t any big surprise in the most popular boys' name list from 140 years ago; these names seem the true definition of timeless. We hear these names still used often today. For example, Henry, the eighth most popular baby boy name in 1883, is slightly more popular today than it was in 1883 — it’s currently the seventh most popular baby boy name in the United States, according to the Social Security Administration.

The name William, which was the second most popular baby boy name 140 years ago, is also still dominant: It’s the sixth most popular baby boy name of 2022. And James, which was the third most popular name in 1883, is the fourth most popular boys' name in 2022.

Top 20 most popular girl names from 140 years ago:

  1. Mary
  2. Anna
  3. Emma
  4. Elizabeth
  5. Minnie
  6. Margaret
  7. Bertha
  8. Ida
  9. Annie
  10. Clara
  11. Alice
  12. Sarah
  13. Grace
  14. Florence
  15. Martha
  16. Ella
  17. Nellie
  18. Bessie
  19. Laura
  20. Ethel

Emma clearly is a timeless name — it was the third most popular name 140 years ago, and it was the third most popular name in 2022.

But there are many surprises on this list. We rarely hear the names Minnie, Bertha, Bessie, Nellie, Ida, or Ethel these days. According to the Social Security Administration, Minnie isn’t even in the top 1,000 list for popular names in 2022 despite being the fifth most popular baby girl name 140 years ago. Bertha, Ethel, and Bessie have also become way less popular.

And if you’re looking for the sort of two-syllable, classic name that dominates today's baby name lists (Ava, Luna, Mia) why not try Anna, Ella, or Annie? They are referential to today’s trends while also being somewhat off the beaten path — or rather, off the top 10. Anna was the 83rd most popular baby name in 2022, Ella the 25th, and Annie the 206th.

These names might be good to pull from if you’re looking for a truly unique vintage-inspired name.

And if if you really want to name your baby something different, yet decidedly more modern, check out what people in Alaska, Mississippi, and West Virginia are naming their baby boys and girls right now that buck the current national trends.