A History of Street Numbers
The history behind housing numbers is an interesting and complex one. While one does not often appreciate their importance, they deserve a lot more attention because they facilitate people in finding a location. An old publication called the “Sign Post” from the Lyle Culvert & Road Equipment Co, released an article in June of 1925 called “House Numbering and Street Naming Systems.” The article sheds light on the logic and history of housing numbers. The author, G.H Herrold, was particularly knowledgeable about housing numbers; he was the managing director of the St. Paul City Planning Board in Minnesota.
The logic behind housing numbers is that they facilitate people to locate places faster. This is especially necessary in large urban cities where you would have a tough time locating a place without a housing number to give you an exact location. Let’s consider a possible alternative: every house had a name on the door. Chances are that there would be many duplicates. On the other hand, housing numbers avoid duplication by giving each house on a street a different housing number.
Another common question is why housing numbers are even on one side of the street and odd on the other. The rationale for the layout is that if all the houses on one side of the street were numbered in order, then no numbers could be given to the houses on the other side. Thus, one side of street gets ascending even numbers, and the other ascending odd numbers.
So where does the first housing number begin and end? Every housing numbering system must have starting point, or base line. The simplest way and most common way to accomplish this is to select the North and South city limits for the base line and start numbering the north and south streets and then select the East and West city limits as the baseline to number the east and west streets. If and when a city expands and the city limits change, the numbering system changes as well. This can be seen in New York City where the main avenues are numbered 1-11. For example, 1st Avenue begins on the East Side with the base line at the Hudson River/United Nations. Then, all streets east of 5th avenue considered the East side and all streets to the west are labeled the West side (i.e. 80 East 75th St or 80 West 75th St).
An alternate baseline method is to take a central point in some business district and pass two base lines through it creating quadrants. Then designate the streets and avenues in each quadrant as NW, NE; SW, SE etc. This method presents a problem: if a mistake is made in the address, there is no means of telling which quadrant the address was intended. Yet such a layout can work by naming or numbering each quadrant. For example, if your house number was 3235 Riverdale Ave and it was in the No.1 NW quadrant, your number would change to 13235 Riverdale Ave with the first number denoting the quadrant. This design is evident in Washington DC, namely, Pennsylvania Avenue. Additionally, the diagonal streets require roundabouts such as DuPont Circle, DC.
Regardless of method, the key to any housing number system is simplicity and uniformity. That way, visitors and new citizens can easily grasp the city’s layout. Additionally, services like mail delivery or food delivery become vastly more efficient when they can plan out their routes. More importantly, housing numbers are especially vital in emergency situations where firefighters and paramedics need to find a location—and every second wasted could mean life or death. A major safety issue with housing numbers is the inability to locate them during the nighttime. Thankfully, recent improvements in sign technology have yielded reflective housing number signs that significantly improve nighttime visibility. These signs can be especially helpful to emergency personnel when they need to find a location quickly to provide lifesaving assistance. Reflective housing signs like the one below are particularly ideal in rural neighborhoods since street lighting is poor and nighttime visibility drastically reduced. For more information on emergency 911 address signs, click here.