• Sarah von Allmen

What were they thinking of?

We tend to think that the quest for unusual and original baby names is a recent phenomenon, but history proves otherwise!


Certain modern celebrity families are known for their affection for names beginning with a particular letter, but one 19th century family I was researching recently already had its own take on this idea. William Hartley married Annie Alma Nelson in 1875, and the couple had an eye-watering 13 children over the next 22 years. Their oldest daughter was named after her two grandmothers, but then a definite theme set in.


1876: Agnes Eleanor

1877: John James

1878: Frank Ferguson

1880: Annie Alma

1882: Noble Nelson

1883: Edith Ellen

1884: Maud Mary

1886: Richard Rossall

1888: Henry Hodgson

1890: William Walter

1892: Hilda

1895: George Gilbert

1897: Victor Vernon


I can’t help feeling sorry for Hilda – why no second name, when Helen, Henrietta or Hortense were crying out to be used? As for Noble (which isn’t such an unusual forename as you might think), I imagine it was chosen to shoehorn in his mother’s maiden name!


Passing on parents’ or grandparents’ forenames to the next generation is a longstanding tradition, and in the past, when child mortality was high, it wasn’t unusual to see a child given the same name as a sibling who had died – something which seems definitely morbid to us today. In medieval times this was sometimes taken to the extreme of giving the same name to a second child while the first was still alive, in the hope that at least one would survive. Of course, if both confounded expectations and lived past infancy, the family then had to find a way of distinguishing them, leading to English surnames such as Littlejohn.


My husband’s 4x great-uncle Daniel Huguenin was apparently determined to see that his name was perpetuated, all the more so (I imagine) because both his father and grandfather had the same name. He married Amélie Sandoz in Le Locle, Neuchâtel in 1814 and had seven children:


1815: Daniel-Henri

1816: Daniel-Auguste

1818: Louise-Emélie

1820: Daniel-Frédéric

1822: Elise-Henriette

1823: Louis-Daniel

1827: Daniel-Philippe


All multiple forenames were recorded in the local baptismal register at this time with hyphens, and we have no way of knowing from that whether both names were in everyday use, but logically it was either that or use the non-Daniel part of the name!


Daniel’s oldest son turned his back on the family forename but came up with one of the most original set of names I’ve ever encountered. He married Emilie Racine in La Chaux-du-Milieu in 1838 and had nine children:


1839: Louise-Amélie

1840: Jules-César

1842: Bernard-Soliman

1843: Bernadotte-Irwan

1844: Zélie-Stratonice-Henriette

1845: Adolphe-Aloïse-Reding

1846: Male child (died before baptism)

1847: Marie-Antoinette

1850: Elisabeth-Louise


So where on earth did these names come from?


Louise-Amélie: Partly named after her mother and grandmother, as Amélie, Emilie and Emélie are all forms of the same name. (Amelia/Emily in English.)


Jules-César: French form of Julius Caesar, and an occasional choice of name locally at the time.


Bernard-Soliman: "Soliman", is the French version of Süleyman, name of three Turkish sultans, and notably of Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), Ottoman sultan, great legislator, great builder, and the man who made Constantinople a brilliant intellectual centre.


Bernadotte-Irwan: Charles Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844 was a French marshal, and later king of Sweden and Norway under the name of Charles XIV or Charles-Jean. Irwan (also spelt Ivan) may refer one of the Russian Tsars.


Zélie-Stratonice-Henriette: Stratonice is the French version of the Greek name Stratonikê. The most famous bearer of this name was the daughter of Demetrios Poliorcete, king of Macedonia. She married Seleucos I (Nicator), founder of the royal dynasty of the Seleucides, who divorced her, and she then married his son, Antiochos I, before dying in 254 BC.


Adolphe-Aloïse-Reding: Aloys Reding (or Von Reding) came from a noble family and is best known for leading an early revolt against the Helvetic Republic.


Marie-Antoinette: Wife of King Louis XV.


Elisabeth-Louise: Wife of Frederick William IV of Prussia.


The names are pretty amazing in themselves, but more importantly, they also tell us something about Daniel-Henri. The canton of Neuchâtel was ruled by the Prussian empire from 1708 until the revolution of 1848, and by naming his children after assorted royal figures, Daniel-Henry affixed firmly his anti-revolutionary colours to the mast, with his children’s names becoming more and more royalist as revolution threatened.


As a postscript, Jules-César emigrated to the US in 1864, followed by Bernadotte-Iwan and Louise-Amélie in 1872. Jules-César married another emigrant from Neuchâtel and worked as a jeweler in San Francisco

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