Shirley is a common enough feminine name — we all know at least one Shirley. But before 1849 the name was rare as a masculine name, and unknown as a feminine one. It was originally a rather uncommon English surname, probably from “shire” and “ley” (clearing, meadow, enclosure.)
So where did Louise Clappe get the name?
I feel confident that she took the name from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley, published in 1849. Jane Eyre, Brontë’s first novel, had been immensely popular. Shirley wasn’t quite the success that Jane Eyre was, but it was widely read and I can’t imagine that a well-educated woman with literary leanings, like Louise Clappe, would not have read the novel as soon as it was published in the United States.
The heroine of novel was given this unusual name by her parents, who were hoping for a boy.
. . . she had no Christian name but Shirley; her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed…” Shirley , Chapter XI
And so the name Shirley came into the world.
Women writing for newspapers, and often men as well, chose a pseudonym to hide their identity or pique the reader’s interest. In the case of women, the fancier the better was the fashion of the day. Why be Mary or Sarah when you could be “Madeleine” or “Aurora Esmeralda”?
When Louise Clappe began writing for the Marysville Daily Herald in 1851 is it any surprise that the name Shirley popped into her head? Maybe she had read the book on the voyage from New York to San Francisco. And so Shirley she became, or Dame Shirley, as she sometimes referred to herself in the letters.
By the way, the name Shirley, although used occasionally for girls in the 19th and early 20th centuries, did not become popular until Shirley Temple came along. Then it rocketed to the Top Ten of baby girl names in the 1930s. For a fun look at the waxing and waning popularity of names, take a look at the Name Voyager at Baby Name Wizard. So fun to play with!
Update: The Baby Name Wizard website is no more. Instead, try out the NameGrapher at Namerology.