First of all, yes, Aquanette is a name. At least 22 Aquanettes have been born in the U.S. so far, according to the SSA’s baby name data. The name debuted in the data in 1958.
Second of all, yes, Aqua Net Hair Spray has been around since the 1950s. I don’t know exactly which year it was introduced, but I’ve seen Aqua Net ads in newspapers from as early as 1956.
So…is there a connection between the name and the product? Did people see Aqua Net in their local drugstores and say to themselves, “Now that would make a great name for a baby!”
Probably not. And here’s why.
Back in the 1940s and early 1950s, there was a string of campy B-movies that starred an actress named Burnu Acquanetta, sometimes billed simply as Acquanetta. She played an ape-woman in Captive Wild Woman (1943) and Jungle Woman (1944), a leopard-woman in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), and a native girl in Lost Continent (1951).
The name Acquanetta debuted on the SSA’s baby name list in the 1944:
- 1953: 19 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1952: 29 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1951: 17 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1950: 11 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1949: 9 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1948: 12 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1947: 5 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1946: 13 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1945: 6 baby girls named Acquanetta
- 1944: 6 baby girls named Acquanetta [debut]
- 1943: unlisted
At the height of the name’s popularity in the early 1950s, the variants Aquanetta and Acquanette popped up. And later in the decade, Aquanette appeared. So I think it’s far more likely that the first Aquanettes were named with Acquanetta (and perhaps fashionable -ette names like Annette and Jeanette) in mind, and not after the hair spray.
But then that leaves us with another mystery: Where does “Acquanetta” come from?
A LIFE article from 1942 stated that both of Acquanetta’s parents were Native American and that her surname meant “laughing water.” Her 2004 obituary in The Independent says she claimed to be “part-Arapaho Indian and part-English aristocrat” and that her name means “burning fire, deep water.”
But a Jet article from the early ’50s tells us the truth: Burnu Acquanetta’s legal name was Mildred Davenport. Census records show that she was born in South Carolina and raised in Pennsylvania. (So was her brother, Horace, who became the first black judge of Montgomery County, PA.)
So the stage names “Burnu” and “Acquanetta” aren’t genuine Native American names at all, but fanciful creations based on the words burn and aqua. They must have sounded exotic enough to pass as Native American back in the 1940s, though.
- “Acquanetta.” Independent 19 Aug. 2004.
- “Hollywood Jungle Girl.” Jet 14 Feb. 1952: 59-62.
- “Venezuelan Volcano.” Life 24 Aug. 1942: 57.
Image: © 1952 Jet