Friday, April 15, 2022

American Media Influences on the name Crystal

Crystal has been around as a woman's name since the 19th century in the US. It was given to between 80 and 120 girls a year up until the 1940s. It rose very quickly in popularity in the 1970s and I was very surprised to find that it broke into the top 10 girls names (#9) in 1982. I'll be honest, and I apologize to anyone who may have this name, but it has always sounded like a stripper's stage name to me. Since I don't frequent strip clubs, this association must have been shaped by television and movies. I went on the hunt for the reasons of this impression. 

The first bump in the name's popularity was likely due to Joan Crawford's portrayal of seductive perfume counter girl Crystal Allan in the 1939 film The Women (It's all about Men), a popular all-female cast film based on a 1936 play by Clare Booth Luce. She is the mistress who eventually marries the antagonist's ex-husband. Then in 1946 scream queen Evelyn Ankers plays a stripper named Crystal McCoy in the murder mystery Queen of Burlesque. Only two references in and I've already found a stripper named Crystal. The name was also used for one of the main characters in the film noir drama Three Strangers that same year. Geraldine Fitzgerald played Crystal Shackleford, a woman who lures two strangers to stand before a strange Chinese idol to make a wish. The name did get a small boost that year but neither character endeared the name to many people. It was also the first year the Krystal spelling appeared in the data given to at least 5 girls. 

Joan Crawford as Crystal Allan in The Women. Source

In 1951, Crystal might have gotten increased usage in and around Michigan due to a set of quadruplets born to the Rosebush family of Oakwood, Michigan, one of who was named Krystal. This won't be the last time alternative spellings of Crystal influence the name. In 1957 the role of Crystal Allan was played by Joan Collins in a remake of the 1939 movie called The Opposite Sex, although this version included men in the cast. There was a small increase in 1963 which I can only attribute to Barbara Eden's character Crystal Simpson in an episode of Rawhide. She is a conman's assistant who performs a harem dance to distract the crew, and was notably performed before Eden was cast as Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie. 

Barbara Eden as Crystal Simpson in a 1963 episode of Rawhide. Source
Crystal increased in popularity steadily from 1970 to 1976 likely due to the growing success of country music singer and sex symbol Crystal Gayle. Her first single in 1970 influenced the name in the southern states initially and by 1976, the year of her first widely successful album titled Crystal, the name Crystal was already a top 10 girl's name in several states (West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina) and top 20 in others (Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky). 
Crystal Gayle on the cover of her 1976 album Crystal. Source

The character that pushed it over the top in the rest of the US though was Linda Evan's portrayal of Krystle Carrington in the soap opera Dynasty, which ran from 1981 to 1989. Krystle was the former secretary and now sweet and caring second wife of Blake Carrington, the moral opposite of his ex-wife Alexis, played by Joan Collins. It is interesting that at this point the popularity of Crystal started to stall or decrease in the states where it was already popular. This suggests either it became considered too mainstream in those states, or that the Krystle character did not match up with how the name was viewed, initially associated with the fiery home town country singer Crystal Gayle. The character might have endeared the name to some parts of America, while spoiling it for others.
Linda Evans as Krystle Carrington on the soap opera Dynasty. Source

Looking at the characters given the name Crystal up until this point, they all have an element of an ambitious woman from less privileged backgrounds. Sometimes she's clever, sometimes kind, but usually she's using her sexual attractiveness to her advantage. Whether you thought that was something to be admired or treated with contempt probably predicted whether you liked the name enough to give it to your daughter.

It was in the late 1980s when the term "crystal meth" started becoming known more widely as slang for crystal methamphetamines and I wonder if that hastened the decline in popularity of Crystal. The Krystal spelling got a small bump in popularity in 1985, perhaps due to the singer Krystal Davis who had a hit song "So Smooth". In 1995 the movie Showgirls had a stripper named Cristal played by Gina Gershon. 

Initially when I saw how the name was popular in states lowest on the American socio-economic spectrum, it seemed obvious why it would have a low class connotation. In 1995 when the writers named the Showgirls stripper Cristal, the majority of American Crystals of all spellings would have been under 25 years old and the name was already dropping quickly in the popularity charts. It seems a bit too soon for all the real world Crystals to have had a chance to influence the associations with the name, they seem to have been doomed from the very start no matter what profession they chose as adults.

End Note: After researching this name, I am a little disappointed that the soap opera character Krystle gets all the credit for the popularity of Crystal on the Wikipedia page. I would give Crystal Gayle a lot more credit, especially in the south. She was inspired to chose her stage name by the southern fast food chain Krystal and for the association with bright and shiny stones. The restaurant chose its name during the depression to inspire cleanliness. The terms 'crystal clean' appears to have had 19th century Christian religious associations, but that's a rabbit hole for another day.

Sources: "What gave the baby name Krystal a boost in 1951?" , Wikipedia: Crystal Gayle , Wikipedia: Crystal (name)

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