The Baby Names Shelva and Shelby

The Woman in Red movie posterShelva was the highest-hitting debut name for both baby girls and baby boys in 1936.

In fact, Shelva was the highest-hitting of all the highest-hitting newbie girl names up to that point, and it would remain the record-holder until 1959.*

Here are the numbers:

  • 1939: 100 baby girls named Shelva (533rd)
  • 1938: 163 baby girls named Shelva (681st)
  • 1937: 194 baby girls named Shelva (471st)
  • 1936: 89 baby girls named Shelva [debut] (708th) & 9 baby boys named Shelva
  • 1935: unlisted

Where did the name Shelva come from?

It took me forever to figure this one out, but the answer is Shelby.

Turns out that many Shelby-like names (Shelva, Shelbie, Shelba, Shelbia, Shelvy, Shelvie, Shelvia, Shelvey, Shelda, Shelma) debuted on the SSA’s baby name list in the mid-1930s, right around the time Shelby — previously more of a boy name — became popular for girls:

  • 1939: 1,164 baby girls and 206 baby boys named Shelby
  • 1938: 1,713 baby girls and 213 baby boys named Shelby
  • 1937: 1,996 baby girls and 203 baby boys named Shelby
  • 1936: 1,072 baby girls and 150 baby boys named Shelby
  • 1935: 67 baby girls and 121 baby boys named Shelby
  • 1934: 17 baby girls and 133 baby boys named Shelby

Why the spike and the sex-change for Shelby circa 1936?

The popular 1935 film The Woman in Red [vid], which starred Barbara Stanwyck as professional horse rider Shelby Barret. The movie was based on the book North Shore by Wallace Irwin.

*In 1959, Shelva (89) was ousted by Torey (102). Torey’s newfound fame was likely inspired by the character Torey Peck, played by Patty McCormack, on the short-lived summer sitcom Peck’s Bad Girl (1959).


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