The practice of numbering houses supposedly began in Paris in the 1500’s. Having a house number is something we don’t give a second thought to these days, but they have not always been used and they certainly have not always been popular.
Some countries have numbered zones, requirements for the number of digits, double sets of numbers, and different color street numbers for different purposes, like upstairs and downstairs. Every country, state, city, or county seems to have their own numbering system. Early numbering systems were developed for the controversial purposes of census taking, drafting men into the military, taxation, creating borders, and other government functions. They were not created for their current purpose: ease of navigation. No matter the country, modern day houses are often required to be numbered for purposes of delivering mail or in case emergency services are needed.
Early identification methods didn’t involve numbers at all. If you wanted to identify or contact the residents of a home, you used the house’s name. But house names were not always displayed, there was no central directory, and sometimes there was more than one house with the same name. This meant that locals could find other locals, but outsiders had a difficult time finding their way around. When the idea of numbering houses was introduced, the idea was not incredibly popular, as it was seen by many as a form of government control.
Today, in modern day America, there is no set standard for how streets get numbered, but there are some practices that are used often. For instance, odd numbered houses are almost always on one side of the street, and even numbered houses are on the opposite side. Some cities are designed as grids with a center point; each block that moves farther from the center increases by 100 (2nd, 3rd, 4th Avenue, etc.) and directional modifiers are determined based upon this point (2nd Avenue North, for example).
My father has been hounding me for years about numbering my house. I’ve never been sure why it was important, since I get my mail and people seem to find the place pretty easily. But, when I saw these numbered tiles, part of a collaboration between House Industries and Heath Ceramics, I coveted house numbers. House Industries creates beautiful fonts and designs, often from unusual or inspired origins. Their typography can take inspiration from a number of sources, blending musical, cultural, and graphic elements. Their design aesthetic works perfectly with the Heath brand. Both companies focus on craftsmanship and forming partnerships and each of them use a hands-on approach when creating products. I purchased the Neutra numbers, but there is also an Eames-inspired collection that is just as beautiful.
I guess my house will not remain incognito anymore. I like that the house numbers add warmth to the entrance and my father is happy to know my house is now properly attired.
My parents spent two years living in Kathmandu, Nepal, and apparently the houses there don’t really have addresses as we think of them – people describe where they live by what the house looks like and what it’s near. As you say, locals can find everything but it’s much harder for outsiders! And then I overheard some Americans on a London bus the other day complaining about how hard it is to find your way around this city: no grid system [no system at all!]; street names rather than numbers; we only give the building number and the road a place is on, not the roads near it (for instance, there’s no London equivalent of saying “89th Street and 2nd Avenue”) even if that road is really long.