If you meet someone in the U.S. named Sheena, chances are she was born in the 1980s. That’s when the usage of baby name Sheena spiked impressively thanks to Scottish singer Sheena Easton, whose first big hit was “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” and whose name was no doubt based on Sìne, the Scottish form of Jeanne.
But the name Sheena has been on the onomastic map (here in the U.S.) a lot longer than that. And I think the initial influence was a comic book character.
“Queen of the Jungle” Sheena, who always wore a skimpy, leopard-print outfit, started appearing in the adventure anthology comic book Jumbo Comics in 1938. She’d been created by artist Will Eisner as a female counterpart to Tarzan, and her name was inspired by H. Rider Haggard’s novel She: A History of Adventure.
By the second half of 1940, Sheena was being featured on the cover of Jumbo Comics regularly. And in the spring of 1942, Sheena became the first female character to star in her own comic book in the spin-off series Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. (The first issue of Wonder Woman didn’t appear until later in 1942.)
Around the same time, the baby name Sheena debuted in the SSA’s baby name data:
1945: 14 baby girls named Sheena
1944: 11 baby girls named Sheena
1943: 9 baby girls named Sheena [debut]
The next decade, Sheena got her own TV series. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle first aired from 1955 to 1956 and the title character was played by Nellie Elizabeth “Irish” McCalla. The show gave the name a boost in the mid-1950s:
1958: 121 baby girls named Sheena
1957: 163 baby girls named Sheena
1956: 136 baby girls named Sheena
1955: 34 baby girls named Sheena
1954: 20 baby girls named Sheena
The name got another (lesser) boost in the late ’70s with the release of the Ramones song “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” (1977), but it was nothing like the rise that was to come a few years later thanks to Sheena Easton.
Kansas newspaper editor Edgar Watson “E. W.” Howe published his first novel, The Story of a Country Town, in his own newspaper, the Atchison Daily Globe, in 1883.
Encyclopedia Britannica said the novel “was the first realistic novel of Midwestern small-town life,” but an early 20th-century review said that the realism wasn’t, in fact, very realistic at all: “[T]he test of veracity fails in the unrelieved gloom of the story, which is bereft of all sunshine and joyousness, and even of all sense of relation to happier things.”
One of the characters in the novel was pretty-but-shallow Mateel Shepherd, the daughter of a Methodist minister (named Rev. Goode Shepherd, naturally).
E. W. Howe must have liked the name “Mateel” quite a bit, because he named one of his children Mateel in 1883.
Readers must have like it, too, becase the number of U.S. babies named Mateel rose in the 1880s and was at its highest from the 1890s to the 1910s, judging by the records I’ve seen.
But the rare name Mateel didn’t appear in the U.S. baby name data until 1927, and it only stuck around for a single year:
1927: 6 baby girls named Mateel [debut]
Well, Mateel Howe went on to become a writer like her father. Her career seems to have peaked with her debut novel, Rebellion, which won the Dodd, Mead & Co. and Pictorial Review “First Novel Prize” of $10,000 in 1927.*
What was Rebellion about? Essentially, the book was about “the difficulties of a daughter living with a depressed, authoritative and demanding father.” (Hm…)
Though both Edgar and Mateel publicly denied that the characters and conflict were inspired by real life, Edgar cut Mateel out of his will soon after the book was published. Here’s how Time put it:
Left. By Editor-Author Ed Howe, an estate valued at $200,000; in Atchison, Kans. To Society Editor Nellie Webb of his Globe, he left $1,500. To Niece Adelaide Howe he left $50,000. To Sons Eugene Alexander and James Pomeroy he left the remainder except for $1, which went to Daughter Mateel Howe Farnham who in 1927 won a $10,000 prize for Rebellion, a novel in which she satirized her father.
Old-timey drama aside, I’m still left wondering about the name Mateel. Did E. W. Howe create it for the character, or discover it somewhere? (I do see a couple of early Mateels in Louisiana. “Cloteal” was often used for Clotilde there, so I wonder if “Mateel” arose as a form of Matilde…?)
Nellybelle was a jeep with a mind of her own. When she wasn’t driving herself around, she was being driven by Roy’s sidekick, Pat Brady. According to the New York Times, Pat made the name Nellybelle a “household word” with his catchphrase, “Whoa, Nellybelle!”
All that exposure inspired more than a few people to call their cars Nellybelle, but it didn’t have the same influence on baby names: the name-combo has never been bestowed often enough to register in the U.S. baby name data (which excludes names used fewer than 5 times per year).
That said, it has certainly seen usage as a first-middle set. Many dozens of females born in the U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s were named “Nellie Belle” and “Nellie Bell,” according to records.
What are your thoughts on the name Nellybelle? Would you use it for a modern-day baby?
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a reader looking for lists of old-fashioned double names. She was aiming for names like Thelma Dean, Eula Mae, and Gaynell — names that would have sounded trendy in the early 1900s. She also mentioned that she’d started a list of her own.
So I began scouring the interwebs. I tracked down lists of old-fashioned names, and lists of double names…but I couldn’t find a decent list of double names that were also old-fashioned.
I loved the idea of such a list, though, so I suggested that we work together to create one. She generously sent me the pairings she’d collected so far, and I used several different records databases to find many more.
I restricted my search to names given to girls born in the U.S. from 1890 to 1930. I also stuck to double names that I found written as single names, because it’s very likely that these pairings were used together in real life (i.e., that they were true double names and not merely first-middle pairings).
Pairings that seemed too timeless, like Maria Mae and Julia Rose, were omitted. I also took out many of the pairings that feature now-trendy names — think Ella, Emma, and Lucy — because they just don’t sound old-fashioned anymore (though they would have a few decades ago).
The result isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a decent sampling of real-life, old-fashioned double names. I’ve organized them by second name, and I also added links to popularity graphs for names that were in the SSA data during the correct time period (early 1900s).