The America of “Little Timmy” is still a cultural baseline. When was that America?
We still refer to the generic American child as “Little Timmy.” The faceless American everywoman is still “Linda” or “Susan.” Even as baby-name fashion leaves those names in the dust, we continue to place the archetypical American in their era…which was when, exactly? What year is the base year of our theoretical America?
The Not-So-Typical Typical American
The generic names we use in jokes and postulations represent a conceptual American midpoint. We know they don’t match our 21st-century reality, but still regard them as a standard.
For instance, a whole genre of one-liners is built on telling an archetypical secretary, “Susan, hold all my calls.” Not only is the name Susan out of step today, but so is the whole mental model of an office as a place where a secretary takes a businessman’s calls. Yet our cultural terrain remains centered there, like an interactive map that defaults to the country’s geographical center in Kansas.
When exactly is this chronological center of America? Our generic name choices may point us to it.
I identified 19 names that are frequently used as stand-ins for the average American man, woman or child, from “Little Timmy” to “Jeff in Accounting.” Their histories vary, but a popularity graph suggests a mid-20th-century epicenter. (I’ve treated nicknames as given names to capture shifts in nickname preferences. For instance, in 1900 a William was likely to be called Willie; in 1940, Bill.)
Calculating the years each name peaked in popularity, the median year—the chronological center, the most generic American year—is:
Try to picture 1948 in America. You may find yourself focusing on what it was not. Post-World War II, but pre-1950s. After the swing era, but before rock ‘n’ roll. A time in-between.
The popular music of the year has largely vanished from memory. Ten years earlier, the top of the charts featured Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. Ten years later, it was Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. But the top hits of 1948 were mostly mild crooning, like Margaret Whiting’s “A Tree in the Meadow,” or novelty numbers, like Kay Kyser’s “Woody Woodpecker.” Styles that don’t even figure in most summaries of American popular music history.
The films of 1948 were more memorable, yet they also speak to an art form in transition. The top films were a mix of black-and-white and glowing Technicolor. That balance even applied to the year’s #1 and #2 movies, despite their similarly colorful titles: The Red Shoes and Red River.
In fashion, 1948 was also a transition year. Christian Dior had just introduced his “new look” that shifted the silhouette of women’s clothing. The fitted, boxy-shouldered look of the ‘40s was poised to give way to the wasp waist and full skirt that would eventually dominate the ‘50s.
1948, the in-between year, stands like a gateway: a world that we picture in black and white on one side, and color on the other. It’s like the moment of stasis as a curve changes direction. That feels fitting for the moment that our consensus imagination has pinned in place as the American midpoint, even as it disappears ever further into the past.