Social Security Popular Baby Names – http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/
Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:
- What was the most popular baby name in 1910?
- How has the popularity of the name Gertrude waxed and waned over the years?
- My character is 45 years old in 1950. What is a very common female name for her?
- How can I find a name so rare, that was only given to five or so babies in 1980?
One of the early working titles for this project was “Big Brother is Here to Help!” That did not play well with my adhoc focus groups, including my sister-in-law. But I think the spirit is applicable here. Since the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the Federal government has been collecting pretty much every name given to people born in this country. It’s a huge data pool that includes information on people born as early as 1879. That’s the big brother side. If you have a baby, you have to provide his or her name to the folks in Washington.
Now for the help side (aside from the retirement, survivor and disability programs). Staff from the Social Security Administration put together a database of baby names. They harvested the first name, birth state and year of birth and put the power of the sheer number of names they’ve collection to provide charts and graphs of popular names. This is a cool tool.
Most of the fun stuff is in the lower half of the screen where there are three sections:
Baby Name Data – Here you can see the change in popularity in a name over a number of years. I did 46 years for my name and the database handled it well. It shows which names have risen in popularity and which ones have dropped.
You can view popular names by decade (back to 1880s), by state (top 100 if you choose a state and birth year), for twins and in US territories (select year of birth. Territories are Puerto Rico and all other territories)
The final option in the “Baby Name Data” box is the “Top 5 names in each of the last 100 years. As of this writting that was from 1911 to 2010. My name has been in the top 5 four times in the past century 2008, 2007, 1990 and 1985, all four times at #5. How about you?
Popular Names by Birth Year – In the middle of the screen, we have “Popular Names by Birth Year” where you enter a year of birth between 1879 and 2010 and how many names you want to see (20, 50, 100, 500, 100) and whether you want names ranked by percent of total births or by number of births.
Popularity of a Name – This is different from “change in popularity” over in Baby Name Data because it is dealing with one name and it allows you to specify whether this should be treated as a male name or female name and asks for how many years to run the table. It will provide the name rank if that name is in the top 1000. For a name like “Louise”, no year will be reported until the latest year that it broke the top 1000. In Louise’s case that would be 1991, when my wife’s name was the 998th most popular girl’s name.
For writers, using the “by state” can provide a plausible common name for a location and the “by year or by decade” can provide a realistic sounding name for a past era. Or, you can keep running character names through the database until you find one uncommon enough NOT to be in the top 1,000.
If you’d like to explore beyond the top thousand names. Or maybe a character who wants a REALLY uncommon name would like to, go check out http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/limits.html. You can download their entire dataset, either nationally or by state. Each year since 1880 is a separate text file. For reasons of privacy, at least five babies must have been given that name in a single year to be included.
In case you’re wondering how the SSA created their baby data, here’s an excerpt from their background information at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/background.html:
All names are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States after 1879. Note that many people born before 1937 never applied for a Social Security card, so their names are not included in our data. For others who did apply, our records may not show the place of birth, and again their names are not included in our data.
All data are from a 100% sample of our records on Social Security card applications as of the end of February 2011.
The background data document also has an important number of caveats that limit some of the certainty with which statements can be made. But I think it’s still worth using.