It’s 1947 in an ascendant America. You are a writer, and you need a heroine for a new series of books for girls. She should embody excitement, adventure, and the boundless possibilities of modernity itself, all in a suitably feminine package.
The perfect profession for your plucky heroine: stewardess. The perfect name: Vicki.
The Start of an Ending
Nicknames as given names for girls were nothing new in 1947. Even back in the late 1800s, nicknames like Minnie, Annie and Bessie were more popular than any name is today. But the traditional diminutives ended in -ie or -y, never -i.
Literally never. The only seeming -i nickname that made any appearances before the turn of the 20th Century was Patti. As it turns out, those appearances corresponded to American tours of the European opera star Adelina Patti.
In the 20th Century, a few bold parents started choosing -i versions of names. Then in 1937, the film A Star is Born launched a new -i era. In that hit movie, a film producer gave an aspiring actress called Esther Blodgett a splashy, sparkling new name: “Vicki Lester.”
The name made such an impact that a movie actress named Dorothy Day adopted Vicki Lester as her real-life stage name. America’s parents took note too. Vicki leapt in popularity and became the #1 -i nickname for the next two decades. Scores of other names followed in Vicki’s wake.
By 1963, one out of every 30 American girls received an -i nickname as a given name, and countless more used them in the traditional nickname role.
The Modern Girl Takes Flight
What attracted that first wave of parents? Generations later, it’s hard for us to imagine how -i endings looked when they were young. That’s where “Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess” can help.
The Vicki Barr books were designed to fuel girls’ dreams. Can you feel the thrill of becoming a flight stewardess, rather than stewarding on an ordinary boat or train? The series begins with Vicki spotting a newspaper advertisement for this ultra-modern dream job:
TO GIRLS WHO WOULD LIKE TO TRAVEL TO
MEET PEOPLE … TO ADVENTURE
“Adventure! She sighed longingly. Yet no one could have appeared less adventurous than Vicki Barr. She was small, with a delicate, almost shy face, and soft ash blond hair. She seemed very fragile. But the fragility belied strong, wiry muscles and an amazing capacity for beefsteak. The dreaminess, if you looked closely, was more intentness, the absorbed look of a girl busy thinking up action—or mischief.
Her airy grace, the smallness and blondeness of her, made Vicki seem about as durable as a cream puff. Actually she was as sturdy as a young tree.”
Vicki, the ultra-modern dream girl, was the epitome of contradictory virtues. Her appearance was dainty and delicate; her substance was strong and fearless. Her manner was demure and misty; her mind was active and clever. She was the bold spirit of America wrapped tightly in mid-century normative femininity. Or in baby name terms, a girlish, diminutive nickname with a defiant flourish.
In retrospect, the tension between those conflicting ideals was unsustainable. Change was on the horizon. The Vicki Barr books were published from 1947 to 1964, spanning the baby boom era. The generation of girls who grew up reading them reinvented the ideals of American womanhood, until the sky really was the limit.