Where Did the Name Irmalee Come From?

Irma Lee McCallsIn 1925, the name Irmalee popped up on the SSA’s baby name list for the very first time. It was the top debut name for girls that year, in fact, with at least 37 baby girls getting the name:

  • 1931: unlisted
  • 1930: 5 baby girls named Irmalee
  • 1929: unlisted
  • 1928: 5 baby girls named Irmalee
  • 1927: 5 baby girls named Irmalee
  • 1926: 10 baby girls named Irmalee
  • 1925: 37 baby girls named Irmalee [debut]
  • 1924: unlisted

What was the inspiration?

Signs point to “Irmalee and the Mid-Victorian Age,” a short story by Oregon writer Vivien R. Bretherton. The story was printed in the July 1925 issue of McCall’s magazine, which had a circulation of well over 1,000,000 at that time.

The teaser for the story asked, “Which do our American men really prefer–the bold modern flapper, or the demure girl of yesteryear?”

Irmalee initially is represented as the archetypal flapper who brags: “[We] out-smoked and out-drank and out-danced and out-petted the rest of the world. We nabbed all the young chaps and we accumulated all the older ones. We didn’t even stay off the married women’s preserves.”

She proceeds to steal her divorced mother’s boyfriend, Shawn.

She accomplishes this by appearing to him as a Victorian vision in billowing flock and rose-draped hat. When he asks her “…do you go in for the new poetry? Or is it psycho-analysis?” she replies: “Tennyson.” Shawn is smitten, but Irmalee cannot sustain the masquerade, for she is “the jazz queen of her set.” She decides to show up for a dinner date as the scantily clad, cigarette-smoking “ultra-modern person” she believes herself to be. Rather than being disillusioned, as she anticipates, Shawn helps her to realize her true self, neither the passive Victorian ideal nor the sensation-seeking flapper, but the “very modern girl” who wants “all that the game” has given her but wants it honestly.

Nearly all of the 1925 Irmalees listed in Social Security Death Index (so far) were born in July or later. The rest, all born in June, probably just took a few weeks to be named.

(Waiting to choose a baby’s name was a lot more common a century ago. In 1915, one reporter joked that Wisconsin’s top baby name was “baby” because so many babies were not named at birth.)

The name Shawn doesn’t show up on the SSA’s baby name list until 1931, incidentally.

Sources:

  • Holliday, Heather. “Death of a Magazine Industry Icon.” AdAge 13 Mar. 2001.
  • Studlar, Gaylyn. “The Perils of Pleasure? Fan Magazine Discourse as Women’s Commodified Culture in the 1920s.” Silent Film. Ed. Richard Abel. London: The Athlone Press, 1996. 263-298.

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