Need to conduct a census? Invent house numbers

In Democracy’s Data, historian Dan Bouk explains how the process of counting people led to the development of house numbers:

Photo by Vitaly Kushnir on

Numerical addresses owed their very existence to censuses. House numbers are essentially names state offices assigned to lodgings. According to one historian, the idea of marking houses with consecutive numbers dates to the desire of Enlightenment monarchs – like the Austrian Maria Theresa – to make a better count of men who could be conscripted into the military. Houses were also sometimes numbered to count minority groups, like the Jews of Prague in one of the earliest cases in 1727, or to make it easier for rulers to find places where soldiers could be billeted. (This practice of quartering soldiers in private homes was common enough, and widely enough disliked, to be proscribed during peacetime in the U.S. Bill of Rights, in the Third Amendment.) Odd-numbered houses on one side of the street, even-numbered houses on the other, had to be invented too. Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital at the time, alternated odds and evens in order to make it easier to conduct the federal census in 1790. New York City copied its neighbor in 1793, as did Paris in 1805. Though people quickly came to rely on numerical addresses to find one another, send letters, or navigate strange and growing cities, those uses were accidental benefits of an apparatus meant to serve the data makers in imperial or national bureaucracies. (58)

It is hard to imagine a world without numbered street addresses today. Perhaps it is just the scale of communities; how would you differentiate between the thousands of addresses within a small geographic area? Street addresses are not the only way properties are identified. Communities have categorization systems for parcels. The way current addresses are set up requires a zooming in approach: you start with the community or zip code, find the street, and then identify the number. Of course, there could be a system that does not use or need numbers, but it is hard to imagine such a system in the quantified world we inhabit.

More broadly, numbers are helpful with addressing particular social issues. Conducting a census helps with social matters like taxation, resource allotment, and more. Having numbers for addresses helps enable counting but also aids mail delivery and others seeking to find particular addresses.