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The Humble (but Essential) House Number

postman delivering to a duplex with snow on the ground

Mail delivery. Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, 1941, John Vachon in the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

Christmas is a time when people are focused on buying presents, eating good food, and getting together with family. Christmas is also a very busy season for the Postal Service, something we have discussed in a previous blog post.

But what the Postal Service does is just the end of a larger logistics and supply chain that has many other parts – all of which have to work together. A disruption to any part of it will have a ripple effect throughout the entire chain. We see this playing out today in the wake of the unprecedented upheaval in the movement of goods across the globe and in the United States, where cargo ships sit off the coast of California, trucks are delayed, and the Postal Service is overwhelmed, as a result of problems brought on by the response to COVID-19. Now imagine trying to deliver mail, Christmas cards, and all of those online orders without addresses.

Today, an address is something you need to get your delivery, but addresses weren’t always a thing — something you will notice if you spend any time looking at much older newspapers and directories, where you will often see only a street name or even just an intersection. However, when the Postal Service introduced the ZIP code to help move the mail along, house numbers were required for those places that didn’t already have them.

While addresses were more common in bigger cities, how businesses and houses were numbered changed over time. I am from New Orleans and have seen the effects of renumbering homes and businesses throughout the city; the New Orleans Public Library even has an index of those changes. To bring uniformity to the numbering, New Orleans and many other places chose to use the system that was developed in Philadelphia. This system, which became known as the Philadelphia System, is basically a decimal system of numbering houses that brings a consistent arrangement to the streets and to towns and cities.

In Philadelphia, the ordinance was introduced in 1856 by councilman and major proponent, John Mascher. His statement, published in the Public Ledger on September 16, 1856, likely echoed sentiments found in other cities. He said the house numbers in Philadelphia were currently in a “deplorably confused condition” and that “The inconvenience resulting to citizens from the irregularities in the numbers of houses, has long been felt and complained of.” He also included his hope for this new system:

A navigator calculates the position of his ship by observations made of the compass and the position of the stars. So also a pedestrian may at any moment know at what point of the city he may be, by merely looking at those constantly reoccurring landmarks, (the houses themselves) only with this advantage, that it requires no calculation on his part whatever. (p. 1)

This plan was adopted in September of 1856 (see Appendix 87 for more detail) and gradually this system moved across the country. In 1950, the American Planning Association published Street Naming and House Numbering Systems targeted to planners of the newer, post-war subdivisions popping up all over the United States. Then the Postal Service introduced the ZIP Code, and addresses became ubiquitous.

So, when you order food from a food delivery service and get your Christmas cards and online orders, give a nod to John Mascher.

One Comment

  1. Jan Barnes
    December 13, 2021 at 10:02 am

    I’m writing to you from the New Orleans Public Library. Thanks for the shoutout. I often wondered why there are 2 1700 (etc) blocks of some streets 😎

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