Babies named for the story “Flavilla”


Flavilla Doane Loring was just 13 months old when she died on October 12, 1847.

She and I never knew one another (of course), and we aren’t related in any way. Yet I’ve known about her for decades.

I grew up on Cape Cod, which is that “hook” part of Massachusetts. The Cape gets notoriously touristy in the summers. So, when I went places as a kid, I took as many non-road shortcuts as possible to avoid having to walk alongside the backed-up tourist traffic.

One of those shortcuts was through the peaceful Pine Grove Cemetery, which allowed me to bypass the busy intersection of North Main Street and Route 28 in South Yarmouth.

Even back then I had a thing for names, so I often stopped to read the headstones. It didn’t take long for me to discover Flavilla.

She’s buried next to her parents, Capt. John Loring and Hannah Loring, and three of her siblings: William, John, and Hannah. (I later learned that young John had drowned at the age of 3 in nearby Bass River.)

John, Hannah, William…these were names I recognized.

But Flavilla? Totally new to me.

I remember staring it, trying to make sense of it.

That’s a name? Really?

It wasn’t like any name I’d ever seen before. The closest thing I could come up with was Priscilla, the name of one of my father’s aunts. But even that was a stretch.

How did she get a name like that? Where did it come from? What does it mean?

I felt like an archaeologist who’d just dug up some curious little artifact. I was eager to identify it, figure it out, give it some context.

I couldn’t, though. Not back then. The Internet hadn’t become particularly useful yet, and our modest town library didn’t offer much by way of research materials.

But now I can…

The origin of Flavilla

It may look made-up, but Flavilla is legitimate name. And a very old one at that.

It was used by women in ancient Rome, where it was a feminine form of the name Flavius, which was based on the Latin word flavus, meaning “golden” or “yellow.” (The original bearer of the name Flavius was likely a blond.)

The name has since been attached to a species of butterfly with yellow wings:

Butterfly species "Nica flavilla"
Butterfly species “Nica flavilla

But none of this explains why a 19th-century New England couple gave this fanciful, non-Biblical name to their daughter.

The Flavilla trend

I checked Flavilla Doane Loring’s family tree for possible namesakes, but didn’t find anything conclusive.

While doing the research, though, I did spot a few other Flavillas — all born in the 1800s.

This made me wonder whether the name Flavilla wasn’t simply a trendy name back in 19th-century America.

Turns out, it was:

  • The first Flavillas I found were born in the 1760s.
  • After that, usage increased.
  • Usage peaked in the 1840s and 1850s.
  • After that, usage decreased.
  • The last Flavillas I found were born in the 1930s.

I’m not quite sure what made Flavilla stylish in the mid-1800s (beyond sound), but I think I know what sparked the trend in the first place: a story.

“The Story of Flavilla”

The Fatal Effects of Fashionable Levities: The Story of Flavilla” first appeared in the London periodical The Adventurer in January of 1754.

Text from "The Story of Flavilla" (1754)
Text from the middle of “The Story of Flavilla”

The protagonist was a young woman, Flavilla, whose questionable behavior ended up costing her dearly. Here’s a line from the last paragraph: “May every lady, on whose memory compassion shall record these events, tremble to assume the levity of Flavilla.”

The author, 18th-century English writer John Hawkesworth, may have chosen the name Flavilla because of the romantic sound, or because of the consonance with “fashionable levities.”

The story was reprinted (under various titles) in story and essay collections for decades to come. It eventually made its way to the States — either in The Adventurer or in one of the subsequent compilations — and that’s about the time we start seeing the first baby Flavillas.

Bitten by the name bug

For years, Flavilla’s name remained a mystery to me.

But I never stopped wondering about it.

Whenever I cut through the Pine Grove Cemetery, I would stop at the Loring family plot just so I could see her name one more time.

Stumbling upon Flavilla’s name is what motivated me to start really paying attention to names.

It’s what got me hooked, you could say.

I started checking name books out of the library. I started visiting other graveyards. I started scanning news articles, phone books, encyclopedia entries — any chunk of text that might contain an interesting name.

And, many years later, I started this blog. :)



20 thoughts on “Babies named for the story “Flavilla”

  1. My question for next year is: Will this posting give enough attention to the name Flavilla to bring it back in the SSA statistics (with five or more baby girls bearing that name)?

  2. My Great Grandmother was Flavilla Amelia Sayles. She’s buried in Woodruff Cemetary in LaGrange County, Indiana.

    Thanks so much for the info – I always wondered about her name.

  3. My great great grandmother was Rosa Flavilla Palacios! Her father was Cuban and her Mother was from Maine.

  4. My great great grandmother was named Flavilla- she died in the 1950s and was over 100. My dad remembers meeting her and thinking she had a strange name. Thanks for the insight… we’ve always wondered.

  5. My great-great grandmother was Flavilla Jennings of Jefferson County, Indiana, born in 1850. Go fig.

  6. My great-grand mother was Flavilla Burnham Collyer born in Arizona on 1880. At the age of 20, she married an Englishman, had six children and died, too young, in New Mexico 1920.

  7. My Great Grandmother was named Flavilla and I was named after her. My name is Flavilla and people are always fascinated by it. They always ask “What does it mean”? I never had any knowledge of it meaning anything; until now. Thanks for the little bit of information. I thought it was just a name passed down in my family. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.