What gave the baby name Shelby a boost in the 1930s?

The character Shelby Barrett from the movie "The Woman in Red" (1935).
Shelby Barrett from “The Woman in Red

The interesting name Shelva debuted in the U.S. baby data for both girls and boys in 1936. In fact it was the highest-hitting debut name for both genders that year, which is very impressive. It also became the new highest-ever girl-name debut (breaking Laquita’s record from 1930) and remained so throughout the ’40s and ’50s.

Here are the numbers:

  • 1938: 163 baby girls named Shelva [rank: 533rd]
  • 1937: 194 baby girls named Shelva [rank: 471st]
  • 1936: 89 baby girls named Shelva [rank: 710th]
    • 9 baby boys named Shelva as well
  • 1935: unlisted
  • 1934: unlisted

So where did the name Shelva come from?

It took me forever to figure this one out, but the answer is that it’s a variant of the name Shelby.

Turns out that a whole bunch Shelby-like names — Shelbie, Shelba, Shelbia, Shelvie, Shelvy, Shelvey, Shelva, Shelvia, Shelda — debuted in the data (as girl names) in 1935/1936, right around the time that that Shelby — previously more of a boy name — became popular for girls:

Girls named ShelbyBoys named Shelby
19381,713 [rank: 142nd]214 [rank: 386th]
19371,997 [rank: 119th]203 [rank: 389th]
19361,071 [rank: 178th]151 [rank: 458th]
193567 [rank: 848th]121 [rank: 527th]
193417133 [rank: 500th]

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

The character Shelby Barrett from the movie "The Woman in Red" (1935).
Shelby Barrett from “The Woman in Red

The 1935 movie The Woman in Red starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck played professional equestrienne Shelby Barrett, who was being wooed by two men before she decided to marry Johnny Wyatt, a polo player from a once-wealthy (but still snobby) family.

Mrs. Wyatt eventually finds herself in a position where she either may remain quiet and permit a friend to be convicted of murder or, by admitting she was the mysterious woman in red who was on his yacht (however innocently) on the fatal night, clear him but risk the wreckage of her marriage.

The movie was based on the 1932 book North Shore by Wallace Irwin. His story was also serialized in the newspapers under the title Dangerous Waters in 1933-1934.

Which name would you be more likely to use for a baby girl today: Shelby or Shelva?


[Latest update: Feb. 2019]

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