Individualism, Identity, and Institutional Stability: Evidence from First Names in Germany, 1700-1850

This study documents the rise of individualism in response to rapid institutional change. In data on 44 million birth records we trace out how the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1789–1815) impacted naming practices. We derive a set of name- based measures of cultural traits by drawing parallels to models of infrequent speech. Employing this methodology, we document a distinct shift in naming patterns with a move towards individualism. These patterns were more pronounced in places that became part of a new territory, resulting in a cultural dispersion both within and across towns. Territorial borders were redrawn without regard to cultural concerns, and our results are not driven by changes in the supply of ideology or the composition of the population. Instead, we provide evidence that the experience of turnover set off a search for cultural traits suitable to the new institutional environment, with political uncertainty translating into a turn toward the individual.