Was Grandma’s Name Helena or Helen?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, May 10, 1913: Nothing much doing today. I got my diploma this evening. The ones we had at commencement were fakes.

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Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Congratulations, Grandma! It’s official now, you’re a high school graduate.

Your diploma hangs in my house, and is one reason that I’ve always been so fascinated with you.  I’ve told the story before, but I’ll tell it again.

I’m going to repost part of what I wrote on Day 2 of this blog,  January 2, 2011:

Helena, Helen or Grandma?

As I work at posting this diary I’ve struggled with what name to use when referring to the diary’s author.

The diary’s author called herself Helena. My grandmother called herself Helen.

I grew up in the farmhouse where my grandmother lived when my father was a child. When I was a teen I found Helena Muffly’s high school diploma in the attic.

I saw Grandma the next Sunday at church. After church I asked her whether her name was Helen or Helena.

She said Helen. When I told her about the name on the diploma. She laughed and replied, “Oh, that was just kid stuff.”

My cousin Stu did a little research on Grandma’s name using the Family Search.org tool. He found that her name is listed as Helena in the 1900 and 1920 censuses–but that it is Helen in the 1910 one.

Helen? Helena? Grandma? It seems strange to call a teen Grandma, but that’s how I think of her. Maybe I’ll just call the author Grandma when I write about her even though she was many years away from becoming my grandmother.

When I was in a college I visited the home of my roommate’s parents. Their family room was decorated with framed old family documents—marriage certificates, birth certificates, diplomas, baptismal certificates and so on.

I immediately thought of Grandma’s diploma in my parent’s attic and the mystery surrounding her name—and asked if I could have it. I framed the diploma and it’s been part of my household décor in the many apartments and houses that I’ve lived in since then.

33 Responses

  1. Diplomas and certificates of family members are treasures to have. I have an old music exam certificate belonging to my father.I think it is beautiful. I think people in times gone by, or record keepers, were not as careful as we have to be nowadays. I always knew my grandmother as Maud and was always told very specifically that it was Maud without an e at the end. Yet when I saw one of her old passports her name was written Maude. I was very taken aback.

  2. I’ve found, in looking at online census information through geneaology sites, that many times, those names are spelled incorrectly. I’m not sure if it’s in the translation, or if the person taking the census didn’t know how to spell…? Many times, the name shown on the census sounds very much like the “real” name, so perhaps the census taker just wrote down what they thought they heard.
    But, yet, Grandma herself said “Helen”. You have a mystery on your hands!
    I LOVE that you have her diploma!

    • I’ve also noticed that census takers weren’t very careful about how they spelled names. Grandma’s last name was also spelled inconsistently across censuses. Sometimes it was spelled Muffly. . . other times it was spelled Muffley.

  3. Beautiful document, and I love the fact that you’ve spent your adult life adding it to your various decors. Which led, now, to this wonderful archival blog. How old were you when Helena passed?

  4. It is not necessarily spelled wrong. Look for her birth certificate and other early records. I bet she changedit herself to fit her own image and “modern” ideas. Most of my family members made small or large changes in their names from their youth. Even my granddaughter changed her name to shorten it to be more like her friends. But her birth certificate still has her “real” name — and she is not yet 20. In fact she shortened her name in about 1 st grade!

    • I’m not positive, but I don’t think that she a birth certificate. Back then many people in rural Pennsylvania were born at home and didn’t have birth certificates.

  5. I was very happy to read your post and see that you and others in your family not only keep but display the family records. Enjoyed your post very much.

  6. Your 2nd day post about your Grandma’s name and her diary is just fantastic! And what a great idea to frame the documents. Your blog gets better and better Sheryl! :)

  7. i also work with genealogy, and it is known that the level of literacy was much lower at the turn of that century, resulting in various spellings of names and places, among other things. However, I think it is very common for teens to play with their own names. My mother’s oldest sister’s name on her birth certificate was Cora Boletta, born in 1894. She changed the Boletta to Belle in 1910!

  8. I, too, say look for her birth certificate and then after that realize that your Grandma played with her name as others suggested. Love the diploma. I have my brothers’ diplomas from the 1950’s all hanging on my home office wall. Love the beauty of their style and some have the names handwritten in a beautiful style as well (not just calligraphy). So nice you have the prized document as it coincides with the diary. Makes it all more concrete.

  9. I always thought my grandmother’s name was Eveline. That is how I always saw her write it – and that is what her high school diploma says. But when I started working on the family history, her name was Evelina on her birth certificate; in the family bible it was spelled Evalina, and letters from her brother looked like Evalena. She obviously changed it sometime before she graduated from high school – removing the “a” on the end of her name. But she’ll always be Grandma to me!

    • I think that there was much more fluidity in names back then. My grandmother on the other slide (not the one in this blog), reversed her middle and first names as an adult. When she was young,she was often called by her middle name; and at some point she decided to just reverse the two names and started writing it that way.

  10. My grandma’s name was Helen, but for some reason in her younger years she decided she’d rather go by the name Hilda. I think we decided that she thought it sounded more German as she married into a German family (she was Russian). But who knows.

  11. I was surprised to learn that my maternal grandmother was named Molly Gertrude but decided to be called Gertrude, never liked Molly. I do think it was easier for them to make changes with their names than it is for us.

    • I also think that it was easier to change names back then. I don’t think that my grandmother had a birth certificate–so she probably didn’t have an “official” name.

  12. I think it is wonderful that you have the diploma. I love the way she says the ones at the commencement were fakes :)

  13. I sort of like that she uses one name in the journal days and another in her later life.

  14. I’m glad you knew where her diploma was, and brought it out of the attic to live with you. :)

  15. Something else we have in common as my grandmother’s name was Helen. She called her first born Helena but she was always known as Lena. Only one of her nine children were actually called by their real names. All the others were called by shortened versions or nicknames. It seemed to be customary in those days.

    • Your comment made me wonder if Helen and Helena were more popular names in the past than what they are now.

      My grandmother was born in 1895. According the the Baby Center, Helen was much more popular back then; but the popularity of Helena has stayed fairly constant across the years. In 1895, Helena was the 273rd most popular name; in 2013 it is 280. In 1895, Helen was in the number 3 spot, and in 2013 it was 531.

      http://www.babycenter.com/baby-names

  16. […] May 10, I did a post about whether Grandma’s name was really Helena or Helen. The post got lots of […]

  17. Loud and Proud! That’s so great to frame it and enjoy it Sheryl. There’s is a very poor graduation rate even today.

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