American Names · Classic, Old, and Traditional Names

Florence; Or, My Naming Prometheus

When I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, I had to write a short story for homework.  I don’t remember the plot, but what I can recall is that I penned a 12-13 page saga and never finished it.  I think this project may have been the one where the teacher asked us to recount “tall tales” and I got away with writing a “tall tale from the future” – which is to say, not a “tall tale” at all.  My result was a story about some European princesses named Florence, Eleanor Brady, and Brady (?).  Eleanor and Brady were twins…and I seriously hope Brady‘s middle name wasn’t Eleanor.  It probably was, and I’m horrified!  To be fair, most adults aren’t familiar with a lot of names.

The names I did know as an 8-year-old came from a few sources.  I was introduced to Eleanor through viewing Sense and Sensibility; only years later did I learn that the character spelt it ElinorBrady was probably a reference to the “Brady Bunch”…but I don’t know why I ever thought that was a girls’ name!  However, I don’t think Florence Henderson was my introduction to Florence.  I suspect I’d read about Florence Nightingale at some point.

Florence was one of America’s most popular baby names in the late 19th century and early 20th.  Although the pre-1937 birth data from the SSA isn’t complete or always accurate (perhaps due to premature death or an unqualified occupation), the information we have from those early years can still tell us what the era’s most popular or trendy baby names were.  Think of a sample size.  Even according to a smaller sample size, Florence almost continually ranked in the Top 10 between 1886 and 1906.  Afterwards, she remained in the top 100 until 1940, and top 1000 until 1981.

Florence hit her lowest point in 2003, when just 50 babies were given the name.  Between 2010 and 2012, she started picking up again.  2013 was the first year since 1991 that more than 100 babies were called Florence!  To put things in even greater perspective, 2015 was the first year more than 200 babies were given this lovely handle since 1975!  She’s definitely making a comeback; the questions are ‘why’ and ‘how much?’

Florence Nightingale

First, let’s look at some of the more famous namesakes for Florence:

  • Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): British Nurse.  Easily the most famous Florence, and the ultimate namesake for most that followed.
  • Florence Harding (1860-1924): First Lady of the United States by her marriage to President Warren G. Harding
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944): Famous opera singer who couldn’t actually sing; Meryl Streep portrays the title character in the 2016 eponymous film.
  • Florence Henderson (1934-2016): Actress who played Mrs. Brady on the “Brady Bunch”
  • Florence Ballard (1943-1976): Singer in “The Supremes”
  • Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner (1959-1998): Olympic athlete
  • Florence Leontine Mary Welch (b. 1986): Leads “Florence and the Machine”
  • Florence Schelling (b. 1989): Swiss hockey player, Olympic athlete 

Florence Foster Jenkins may impact the charts in 2016.  However, since 2015 is the most recent data we have, it’s clear that this decade’s Florentine revival stems from other factors. Of all the namesakes, Welch, Henderson, and Schelling were the only ones alive between 2010 and 2015.  Florence Henderson passed away last year, which may also impact usage.  I definitely think Florence Welch and her band have had some influence, especially in the U.K. (Florence ranks #23 in England and Wales).  As for Florence Schelling…I don’t know enough about sports to comment about the naming impact of an athlete who doesn’t usually even play for the U.S., but her team (Swiss) received a medal at the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014.  Curiously, the name’s biggest jump was between 2013 and 2014, so anything is possible!

Of course, who can forget the magnificent Italian city of Florence?  Firenze, as it’s known, was the birthplace and namesake of the illustrious Miss Nightingale.  The city is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance and is also currently ranked as one of the top 15 fashion capitals of the world.  Places and fashion are two things that always seem to influence baby names!

1835 map of Florence, Italy.  Miss Nightingale was born there, only a few years before.

More generally, old-fashioned names are “in.”  We’re seeing a revival of other great-grandma names like Ophelia and ClementineFlorence additionally has the benefit of sounding – well – floral!  Florence derives from a Latin word meaning “flowery,” “blooming,” or “flourishing.”  This makes Florence something of a flower name; a more general option for the person who can’t decide whether she prefers roses or violets.  The baby name Violet, incidentally, is more popular now than in her last heyday a century ago!

Final notes:

  • Similar Flora is also returning, but at a snail’s pace in comparison to Florence.  In 2015, 173 girls were named Flora; Florence, 214.
  • A part of me also wonders if any young Florences are named after Progressive Flo from the insurance commercials.
  • I really don’t want to explain why Flo is a terrible nickname.  Regardless, Florence doesn’t need to be shortened. 

I can’t tell if Florence will crack the U.S. top 1000 in 2016 or 2017.  She’s close, but it may or may not happen.  I’m honestly just happy that more parents are taking notice of such an exquisite antique and one of my childhood favorites. 🙂

What do you think of Florence?  Do you have any other ideas why the name is resurgent?  How about some childhood naming stories?  Let me know in the comments! 

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