(Roughly) Daily

“Every spirit makes its house, and we can give a shrewd guess from the house to the inhabitant”*…

 

house numbers

 

Where did the very idea of assigning numbers to homes come from? As Deirdre Mask writes in her fascinating new history of street addresses, The Address Book, house numbering is a product of the Enlightenment, and was undertaken originally not to aid citizens but to make it easier to tax and conscript them. “House numbers exist not to help you find your way,” Mask writes, “but rather to help the government find you”…

The familiar American address system of odds and evens running concurrently down opposite sides of the street comes from Philadelphia, where Clement Biddle established it in 1790, according to Anton Tantner’s odd and delightful Address Numbers: Pictures of a Forgotten History. It was also in Philadelphia that the idea of assigning each block its own 100-number range was pioneered, in 1856. Both systems have spread across the world, though other systems still persist: the “horseshoe” method of numbers running sequentially down one side of the street and then back on the other side, so that No. 1 sits across from the highest number on the block; a “distance scheme” in which the number on a house refers to its distance from a given point. There are still plenty of places in the world where addresses are not used. In most towns in Costa Rica, for example, locations are given narratively (“fifty meters west of the town hall,” etc.), since houses have no numbers and, “as in the song of U2,” writes the Costa Rica News, “the streets have no name.”…

Think of your address numbers as your house’s earrings. Your house projects a certain aesthetic to your neighbors, intentionally or unintentionally, a set of visual cues that can be read along lines of class, taste, aspiration, and style. The numbers on your house do more than identify your address for the postman; deployed properly, like the perfect pair of earrings, house numbers accentuate a harmonious visual message in concert with the design around them. Sometimes that message is one of individuality: My house, the numerals say, reflects my own personality, and is unlike any other house you might encounter. Sometimes it’s a message of conformity: My house fits in securely with all my neighbors’.

I recently walked every single street in my ZIP code in the Northern Virginia suburbs, cataloging the house numbers I saw along the way and mapping them, block by block for 1,114 blocks. This absolutely scientific survey yielded significant data about how styles of house numbers propagate across neighborhoods and significant observations about how house numbers “speak” to the passersby they address…

Serif or sans serif?… Dan Kois (@dankois) explores what that can tell us: “How people style their house numbers.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we do a number, we might recall that on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the results were largely civilian.  From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.

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