House numbers are an aspect of modern life that we take for granted, but they are a relatively recent invention (and still far from universal).
In an age before literacy became widespread, houses, shops and businesses were identified, like pubs, by signs – the Golden Cross, the White Hart, the Lamb and Flag – fixed to their walls or hanging from a bracket.
They often featured animals, heraldic devices, or referred to a trade.
Balzac’s novella La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (“At the Sign of the Cat and Racket”) refers to the sign of a Paris cloth merchant, while the name of the Rothschild banking dynasty comes from the red shield (Roth Schild in Old German) that hung outside their premises in Frankfurt. The old house signs that can still be seen in Prague sometimes feature exotic animals such as ostriches and elephants.
Pity the postmen
While picturesque, the custom had its disadvantages. The location of a certain address was unlikely to be known beyond the immediate neighbourhood, and the duplication of signs caused confusion – at the end of the 18th century, for example, there were six buildings in central Vienna called Zum Goldenen Adler (At the Golden Eagle), and another 23 in the suburbs.
Hanging signs also kept people awake at night when they creaked in the wind, knocked riders from their horses and occasionally fell on the heads of passers-by. As a result, England passed a law in 1762 banning large projecting signs. In 1797 all projecting signs were forbidden, although some establishments, notably pubs, barbers and pawnbrokers, maintain the tradition to this day.
What really spelt the end for the old signs was the spread of house numbers throughout Europe in the course of the 18th century.
The development was characteristic of the classifying, rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment; and was also made necessary by the burgeoning urban populations of the Industrial Revolution and the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state, with its postal systems, police forces, censuses, taxation and conscription. It did away with the secretive mediaeval city quarters, where the location and the occupants of a building were known only to its neighbours.
In a few cities in Europe, house numbers had been introduced much earlier. The houses that stood on the Pont Nôtre-Dame in Paris had numbers in the 15th century, while the buildings of the Fuggerei in Augsburg – a block of low-rent tenements for the poor – were numbered by 1519. The purpose of these schemes was usually to establish property ownership, however, rather than for convenience of addressing.
In the 18th century the first street numbering schemes were applied across Europe, to make it easier to police, tax or recruit their inhabitants and to aid postal deliveries. In 1708, the topographer Edward Hatton reported in his New View of London that "at Prescott Street, Goodman's Fields, instead of signs, the houses are distinguished by numbers.”
The growth of street numbering was also driven by the territorial ambitions Prussia. In 1737, the authorities were ordered to "fix numbers on the houses... in little villages” before the troops marched in, presumably to make billeting easier. After Frederick the Great seized Silesia from Austria in 1742, the system was extended to the conquered province, and a 1752 law decreed that “In every town little tin plates with numbers have to be produced by the city council and nailed to the houses.”
Global approaches to local
In 1787, Choderlos de Laclos, the French military engineer and author of Les Liaisons dangereuses, submitted a proposal to the Journal de Paris to number the city’s houses. The idea was not taken up until after the Revolution, when a new system of house numbering was introduced in 1790 to make it easier to collect taxes; this new system assigned numbers to houses not by streets but by districts.
A similar system was adopted in Venice. Since the 12th century, the city had been divided into districts known as sestieri. When the Austrians occupied the city between 1797 and 1805, they ordered that numbers should be painted in black on a white rectangle on all the houses. The houses were numbered not by street, but by district – a system still in use today, which causes much confusion and gives rise to very high numbers.
Comparable schemes are used today in Japan and South Korea. Each city is divided into small numbered zones, and the houses in each zone are numbered either in the order in which they were constructed, or clockwise around the block.
In St Petersburg and other Russian cities, each number above a street entry referred to a tenement, or dom, comprising not just the five or six floors of apartments fronting the street, but the warren of buildings in the courtyards beyond. The system is also found in a number of central and Eastern European counties.
According to the system followed in most European countries, odd and even numbers alternate on each side of the street, usually with the odd numbers on the left. When buildings were added after a street had been numbered, this could give rise to some interesting curiosities. In Camberwell Church Street in south London, the Victorian police station (now disused) was built between nos. 22 and 24, and numbered 22½ – later, more prosaically known as 22A.
Before the mid-19th century, it was common in England for numbers to run sequentially along one side of the road and then back down the other – this “horseshoe system” can still be found in Pall Mall in London, and the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin.
In the United States, town planners were not constricted by winding mediaeval street plans, and began to build cities such as Philadelphia on a grid. This allowed them to introduce a new method of numbering, known as the block decimal system or Philadelphia system. 100 numbers were reserved for the houses of every block of houses, with odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the other. At each intersection, the numbers increased to the next 100. Not all the numbers were used, so that buildings added later could be assigned numbers within the sequence.
Do you think address systems could be improved? How?