In 1770, Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg Empire, had just lost the Seven Years’ War and was fighting to try to win back her territory.
Feudal landlords throughout her empire handled military recruitment, but often kept the strongest men to work their land.
To find fighters, Maria Theresa ordered an accounting of all military-eligible men. But it was difficult to do, as there was no way to identify individual homes.
To solve this problem, Maria Theresa invented house numbers, changing many aspects of the way people have lived since.
Her officers counted 7 million people over the course of a winter, and painted more than 1.1 million numbers on the outside walls of homes in thick black paint “made of oil and boiled bones,” according to “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power,” by Deirdre Mask (newly released by St. Martin’s Press).
While we take house numbers for granted, Mask quotes historian Anton Tantner, whom she calls “perhaps the world’s leading expert on house numbers,” as saying they “can be considered one of the most important innovations of the Age of Enlightenment.”
The existence of house numbers has countless effects on our everyday lives.
Noting that “most households in the world,” including in rural parts of the United States, “don’t have street addresses,” Mask makes the case that people have practically no identity without them. She even cites a study of homeless people that found that the single most important thing they needed was an address.
“An address, today, is an identity; it’s a way for society to check that you are not just a person but the person you say you are,” she writes.
One of the many effects of house numbers and street addresses has been in helping combat infectious diseases.
When the Soho neighborhood of London suffered a cholera outbreak in 1854, with an area known as Golden Square taking the hardest hit, an epidemiologist and medical statistician named William Farr obtained the death certificates for everyone from the area who died in the epidemic.
With the address of every victim before him, he was able to see that “almost all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the Broad Street pump.”
He was able to have the pump’s handle removed just two days later, and the epidemic ceased.
While house numbering took off worldwide in the 1800s, it has often been chaotic and illogical.
Mask cites Mark Twain’s writings about the unhelpful building numbers in late 1800s Berlin, which seemed randomly chosen.
“At first, one thinks it was done by an idiot; but there is too much variety about it for that; an idiot could not think of so many ways of making confusion and propagating blasphemy,” Twain wrote. “They often use one number for three or four houses — and sometimes, they put the number on only one of the houses and let you guess at the others.”
The first American house numbers came from the British, who used them to “keep track of revolutionaries.”
One step toward standardizing them came in 1790, when Clement Biddle, an adviser to George Washington, invented “the Philadelphia system,” which consisted of odd numbers on one side of a street and even numbers on the other.
William Penn, a Quaker, furthered this by adding numbered streets to the Philadelphia grid, which Mask notes is a “peculiarly American phenomenon,” and that “seven out of the 10 most common street names in America are numbers.”
Quakers had favored numbering over other methods in several areas, rejecting the month names due to their pagan origins — January becomes “First Month,” etc. — and using numbers for days of the week as well.
Mask writes that the New York City grid was developed over several years, starting in 1807, by three men, including Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, author of the phrase “We The People” and a man who bragged in his diary about once having had sex with his married lover in The Louvre.
They used a right-angled grid for Manhattan because, they wrote, “strait-sided, and right-angled houses are the cheapest to build, and the most convenient to live in.”
Randel’s grid made Manhattan residents wealthy.
“The new grid, with . . . plots of even sizes, made land easy to buy and sell,” Mask writes. “Economist Trevor O’Grady has estimated that between 1835 and 1845, the new plan added about 20 percent value to the land on the grid.”
In the 1870s, landlords on the Upper West Side, then an area where “crudely built wooden or mud shacks housed immigrant families [as] men labored nearby and the women sorted trash, looking for rags and valuables they could sell,” sought to make the area more upscale.
Edward Clark, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Co. and a major local landowner, suggested changing the numbered avenues to “the names of the newest states and territories,” which would have changed Eighth Avenue to Montana Place, Ninth to Wyoming Place, 10th to Arizona Place and 11th to Idaho Place.
His fellow landlords rejected these, selecting the current names of Central Park West, Columbus, Amsterdam, and West End Avenue instead. As a consolation, Clark “had to be content with naming his new luxury apartment building at Central Park West and 72nd Street The Dakota.”
Mask calls the name scheme a “kind of hollowed-out ‘Field of Dreams’ policy.”
“If you want a posh street, give it a posh name. It’s no accident that Central Park West is an expensive address; the name was specifically chosen to be expensive.”
This strategy continues in the city to this day, as real-estate developers can purchase prestigious addresses for their properties.
In 2016, Mask writes, developers William and Arthur Zeckendorf made a deal to pay Park Avenue’s Christ Church $30,000 a year for 100 years for the rights to 520 Park Ave., even though their building at that address “does not even have frontage on Park Avenue; it is actually on East 60th Street, 150 feet west of that avenue.”
“The city allows a developer, for the bargain price of $11,000, to apply to change the street address to something more attractive,” Mask writes.
She highlights the occasional insanity of this by noting that, in the area surrounding Madison Square Garden, “the numbers of the Penn Plaza addresses, in order, are 1, 15, 11, 7, and 5.”
And while such name games can boost a property’s value, as “an apartment on Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue can cost 5 to 10 percent more than an equivalent property on nearby cross streets,” the effect works the other way as well.
Mask cites an Australian research project where high-school students identified 27 streets with silly names, including Butt Street, Beaver Street and Wanke Road, and found that “property on these streets costs 20 percent less than [on] adjacent streets — on average, about $140,000 in savings.”
Mask believes that given the effect street names have on a locality, their influence is something everyone should be aware of.
“In the 18th century, residents protested violently when officials marched through their villages painting numbers on their homes,” she writes.
“The people understood the new numbers meant they could now be found, taxed, policed and governed, whether they liked it or not. They understood that addressing the world is not a neutral act. Do we?”