Baby name story: Helvetia

The Boswell sisters: Martha, Connie, and Vet (circa 1930)
Martha, Connie, and Vet Boswell

The Boswell Sisters were a trio of siblings from New Orleans who performed as a jazz vocal group from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s.

Martha, Constance (“Connie”), and Helvetia (“Vet”) Boswell were famous for their “intimate, close harmonies.” Their songs also tended to feature changes in both key and tempo.

Here’s what they sounded like:

(The song “It’s the Girl,” released in 1931, was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry in 2010.)

Helvetia’s first name — unlike her sisters’ first names — is quite unusual. Where did it come from?

She was named after the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company, because that’s the brand of milk she was bottle-fed as an infant.

The Helvetia Milk Condensing Company was founded in Illinois in 1885 by Swiss immigrant John B. Meÿenberg. “Helvetia” was what the ancient Romans called the region now known as Switzerland (because, at that time, a Celtic people known as the Helvetii resided there). In English, the word Helvetia is typically pronounced hel-VEE-shuh.

All three Boswell sisters got married in the mid-1930s. At that point, Martha and Vet decided to retire and start families, but Connie — who had been wheelchair-bound since childhood, due to a bout of polio — decided to continue performing.

Intriguingly, Connie altered the spelling of her name to “Connee” partway through her moderately successful solo career. Here’s why:

The onset of WW II meant touring and signing autographs for troops. The loss of dexterity from the lingering affect of polio made it difficult to dot the “i” in her name, making Connee a more practical alternative; by 1942, she legally changed the spelling.

Which of the sisters’ names do you like best – Martha, Constance, or Helvetia?

P.S. Another famous jazz vocal group was Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, which later became Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan.


Image: Photo of the Boswell Sisters in What’s on The Air (Jan. 1931, page 25)

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