Mystery baby name: Willodean

Usage of Willodean and variant names, 1920s and 1930s

Different versions of the name Willodean keep popping up around here. Last month’s old-fashioned double names list included a Willowdean, and last week’s post on Dolly Parton’s siblings featured a Willadeene.

So I’m taking this as a sign that it’s finally time to post about Willodean. :)

“Willodean” is the most popular spelling, but the group includes dozens of variants, 16 of which have been used frequently enough to register in the SSA data. Here are some specifics on each of the 16:

  1. Willodean: At least 1,236 U.S. baby girls have been named Willodean (which was in the data from the 1910s to the 1950s)
    • 595 in Ala., 76 Tenn., 47 Ark., 42 Ind., 16 Ky.
  2. Willadean: At least 880 baby girls named Willadean (1910s to 1960s)
    • 57 in Ala., 44 Tenn., 16 Ky., 15 Mo., 13 Ark., 11 Okla., 5 Ind., 5 Tex.
  3. Willodene: At least 241 baby girls named Willodene (1910s to 1940s)
    • 44 in Alabama
  4. Willadene: At least 220 baby girls named Willadene (1910s to 1940s)
    • 5 in Indiana
  5. Wylodean: At least 77 baby girls named Wylodean (1920s to 1930s)
    • 5 in Alabama
  6. Willadeen: At least 75 baby girls named Willadeen (1920s to 1930s)
    • 9 in Texas, 6 in Arkansas
  7. Willowdean: At least 63 baby girls named Willowdean (1920s to 1930s)
  8. Wilodean: At least 55 baby girls named Wilodean (1920s to 1930s)
    • 10 in Kentucky, 5 in Alabama
  9. Wylodine: At least 32 baby girls named Wylodine (1920s to 1930s)
  10. Willodeen: At least 29 baby girls named Willodeen (1920s to 1930s)
  11. Wylodene: At least 23 baby girls named Wylodene (1920s)
    • 5 in Alabama
  12. Willadine: At least 16 baby girls named Willadine (1920s)
  13. Wilodene: At least 11 baby girls named Wilodene (1920s to 1930s)
  14. Willodine: At least 10 baby girls named Willodine (1930s)
  15. Wilodyne: At least 6 baby girls named Wilodyne (1920s)
  16. Wiladean: At least 5 baby girls named Wiladean (1920s)

Overall, the group was most popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as you can see in the chart above.

Only the most popular variant, Willodean, was able to break into the top 1,000:

  • 1933: 43 baby girls named Willodean
  • 1932: 67 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 854th]
  • 1931: 66 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 856th]
  • 1930: 57 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 983rd]
  • 1929: 67 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 876th]
  • 1928: 76 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 830th]
  • 1927: 57 baby girls named Willodean
  • 1926: 64 baby girls named Willodean [rank: 941st]
  • 1925: 48 baby girls named Willodean

And now for the $64,000 question: What made the “Willodean” name-group so trendy in the Southeastern U.S. (particularly Alabama) in the late ’20s and early ’30s?

I wish I knew!

The data suggests that something kicked things off around 1924, and yet I haven’t been able to find a probable event. Was it something in the newspapers? On the radio?

The only clue I’ve found so far is a secondary character named Willowdean French from Summer Bachelors, which was two things in 1926: a book published in August and a silent film released in December. But the book and movie were clearly just following the trend, not launching it.

I’ve known about the historical/regional trendiness of Willodean for a long time now. I even remember seeing posts about Willodean at other name blogs (like Spastic Onomastic and Baby Name Wizard). I held off writing about it myself because I figured I’d eventually stumble upon the influence and post something definitive. But, more than a decade later, I still haven’t solved the mystery.

So…does anyone out there have a theory about what made Willodean trendy in the early 20th century?

Even better: Do you happen to know a family with a Willodean who was born in the ’20s or ’30s? (I’m looking at you, Alabama peeps!) If so, would you please reach out and ask a family member if they know the story behind the name?

13 thoughts on “Mystery baby name: Willodean

  1. One mystery asked, another mystery solved: Now I finally know where Ramona Quimby’s young neighbor, Willa Jean, got her name. It must’ve been the zeitgeist when the Beverly Cleary first was publishing. (If she’d realized how very dated all the names would become, maybe she would’ve chosen different ones, but then, she probably didn’t expect that their eternal present would last all the way to the 90s, nor that the books would still be read today.)

  2. Some Willowd*n commentary on previous blogs suggests that the novel was a name inspiration for some later Willowd*ns actually being named that. I think this might be an example where one usage spawns other usages (i.e. the 1926 novel) which in turn reinforce the name.

    It’s a hard one because it *was* a fairly established name before 1924, so it’s hard to pinpoint which of the Willowdeans did something noteworthy in 1924 to push it into the limelight.

  3. @C Baker – I never realized that the Ramona books started coming out in the 1950s! Wow. Or that Beverly Cleary was born way back in 1916. The character name “Willa Jean” does make more sense given this context.

  4. @lucubratrix – That’s a good point about the novel. It may not have started the trend, but (like you said) it seems to have reinforced it.

  5. If you ever read her first autobiography, The Girl From Yamhill, she mentions that her very earliest memory is of celebrating the end of WWI. Not that she understood what was going on until much later, of course!

    Isn’t she even still alive? I keep expecting to hear that she’s passed away, and yet….

  6. Here’s something interesting! A Netflix movie called Dumplin’, which comes out in a few weeks (Dec. 7), has a main character actually named Willowdean! I think it’s set in Texas. If the film gets enough attention, do you think it could nudge Willowdean back into the SSA data?

  7. My mom’s name is Willadeen, and she was born in 1933. Her older sister (born 1926) *almost* got the name. My grandmother said she saw it in a novel. Does anyone know the author and title?

  8. In the older sister’s case, it could have been Summer Bachelors…or it could have been something earlier we haven’t discovered yet. Summer Bachelors was written by Warner Fabian.

  9. My mom was born in Dekalb county Alabama in November 1932. She always said she was named after the doctor William Dean who delivered her.

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