Thursday, August 10, 2023

Scarlett, Rhett and... Wiley? The Names of Gone With the Wind

Old period films like Gone With the Wind can have a huge influence on which names we see as classic or traditional. It's often hard to imagine what it was like to hear these names for the first time and how they would have sounded to contemporary audiences. In the case of Gone With the Wind, what modern viewers are missing is that the three main characters, Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, are all using uncommon surnames as first names. 

Surnames as first names only started going beyond family names and heros in the 1800s and only started becoming popular enough to shake off the surname style individually at the turn of the 20th century. The names in Gone With the Wind fit with the established stereotype of wealthy and privileged men and women using surnames as first names but they weren't individually common names.

Gone With the Wind is set in the 1850s and 60s American Civil War era in the south. The book was written in 1936 by Margaret Mitchell and the movie staring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable was released in 1939. 

In the book, Katie Scarlett O'Hara was named after her paternal grandmother Katie Scarlett. Having a surname in the middle spot was not uncommon in the south for boys as well as girls. In fact, when middle names started being adopted in the 1800s, they were just as likely to be a family surname as another Christian name. As a first name in general, Scarlett was rare and used by men as well as women. The origin of her name is explained in the book, but movie viewers would have heard her father Gerald O'Hara refer to her as "Katie Scarlett" and the two T spelling in the beginning credits indicated a significance beyond the colour. But WWII era parents did not immediately fall in love with the name Scarlett. It first entered the SSA stats in 1937 but stayed below 200 girls a year until the 2000s. 

Katie Scarlett O'Hara

The name of the character Rhett Bulter might have been inspired by South Carolina politician Robert B. Rhett, known for leading the Fire-Eaters and for being "the father of succesion".  The 1850 US census lists only 8 men with it as a first name. It's only become popular in the real world since the 2000s.

George Ashley Wilkes also goes by his middle name but it was a bit more common as a first name than the others, with over 750 people recorded with Ashley as a first name in the 1850 census (about 10 of them were women). But to put that in perspective, the surname Wiley was about 7 times more common, Jefferson and Wilson 10 times more common, and Washington almost 15 times more common as a first name than Ashley. It wasn't even the most common -ley surname being used as a first name. Ashley Wilkes could have easily been a Bailey Wilkes, a Riley Wilkes or Presley Wilkes and been appropriate for the period. Even accounting for 1930s name tastes, Margaret Mitchell might have called him Oakley Wilkes, as that name was about as common for baby boys in her time as Ashley. 

"Oh, Wiley!"

The recent popularity of Ashley might have blinded modern audiences to its surname style, but the contemporary audience was well aware and viewed it as a unisex surname. The book had a small effect on the popularity of Ashley for boys, going from 30 per year to 50, but it also influenced its use for girls. The year 1938 marks the beginning of Ashley trending for girls, starting with 7 and then hovering around 10 per year until the 1950s. It overtook the boys in 1964 with 184 girls named. It was most popular for boys in Georgia and North Carolina in the US, pointing towards Gone With the Wind as the major influence.

If you want to put the fictional Wilkes family naming taste in perspective, don't forget about Ashley's sister, India Wilkes. Her name was about half as common as Ashley but still more common than Scarlett and Rhett. Other surnames you might not have noticed in the film are Brent, Stuart and Beauregard. You can thank Gone With The Wind for Beau as well. It was very rare as a stand alone name and Beau is much more common today than it ever was in the 1860s.

India did not catch on as a name.

Gone With the Wind had a huge impact on our perception of these names. They were uncommon for the time it was written and the period it was written about. The film's place as one of the most iconic films in history gave the names a classic and traditional feel and influenced their modern popularity.

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