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Why were the French so suspicious of street numbering?

More and more hamlets are bowing to pressure to display a proper address, but the system, spearheaded by Napoleon, has always attracted controversy

The familiar plaques displaying white numbers and letters on a blue background were only introduced in 1847 Pic: Paris Tourist Office / Fabian Charaffi

Long before home deliveries, emergency services and fibre optic links made precise house numbering a necessity, people in France were quite happy to get by with improvisation, common sense and a bit of luck.

Giving directions to a destination usually meant evoking a well-known landmark and, over time, this formed many street names, such as Paris’s Rue de Moulin-Vert. 

An alternative was to name the road after a local shop or industry, or after a famous resident or someone significant to the area, whether that be a leader, philosopher or novelist.

Read more: Why your address in France may change

History of house numbering in Paris

The first record of a house numbering system in Paris dates to the 15th and 16th centuries and refers to a row of buildings on the reconstructed Pont Notre-Dame, which displayed Roman numerals.

Modern history lecturer Vincent Denis, from Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonne, says: “Before the Revolution, there were several numbering systems, established for census purposes or for the distribution of services (fire pumps, organisation of the militia, etc).”

In the Paris suburbs, for example, a cadastral operation to control the expansion of the city between 1724 and 1728 saw numbers being used so that any new building could be easily identified. Some remained and were printed in almanacs and guides for visitors, although this was not their original purpose.

Residents rebel 

In the late 1720s, officials in Paris announced they would be placing name plaques at the beginning and end of each street. However, the residents rebelled, leading to an ordinance being issued in July 1729 stating that homeowners would have to replace any damaged or lost plaque with a stone block large enough to advertise the street name.

An isolated urban planning operation was the construction of the Halle aux Blés (later known as the Bourse de Commerce and now an art museum) around 1768, says Mr Denis.

“The new star-shaped streets around the circular building were given numbers. This was an exception.”

Royal edict is ‘starting point’ for nationwide numbering system

On March 1, 1768, King Louis XV announced by decree that all houses outside of Paris were to be assigned a number to locate the soldiers residing in civilian houses (the housing of soldiers at the time was the responsibility of the towns and therefore of their inhabitants).

“This was a royal edict and it is a text that is often considered the starting point for the numbering of houses in France,” says Mr Denis.

Before, houses were numbered (with chalk marks, sometimes metal plates, as in Strasbourg) to accommodate soldiers. However, Paris and some other cities were exempt from the burden of housing the military due to a privilege bestowed by the monarch.

“So a large city like Lyon had its own numbering systems (in fact, it had several in the 18th century) according to the needs of the city administration,” says Mr Denis.

“In practice, towns numbered their houses in a very scattered way. Bordeaux, one of the largest towns in the kingdom, was not numbered in 1789 (pre-Revolution).

“There are multiple reasons for this: cost, but above all resistance from certain local groups to anything that might homogenise the urban space (in particular the nobility, the privileged groups, who saw this as a way of being put on the same level as others).”

Houses numbered by distance from junctions

An alternative numbering method was to measure the distance from the nearest junction. 

The result was that one house could be numbered 109, for example, and the next house 694, without any other properties between.

“There were many initiatives like this, especially during the Revolution, to number Paris or other cities. 

“Everyone would know the distance they had to travel to their destination in the street. It is also linked to the invention of the metre as a universal system of measurement.”

Publisher paints numbers on Paris doors

A more cohesive numbering system took time to establish itself, certainly compared to other countries. 

Art historian Marielle Brie, author of the Objets d’Art et d’Histoire blog, says: “In Persia, the Roman numeral system appears in 1737. In Madrid, it was 1750. So the idea of numbering houses and streets appears quite late in Paris because it was only in 1779 that things progressed. In fact, it was a publisher of directories who tried first as a way to make money.”

Marin Kreenfelt de Storck, who produced the annual Almanach de Paris, was frustrated by efforts to list precise addresses in his publication without long explanations.

Consequently, he personally financed the job of painting numbers on all the doorways in the main streets of Paris – much to locals’ consternation.

“They feared it would help thieves to organise burglaries but they were also worried that the Roman numeral system would be more accurate for the state to collect taxes,” says Ms Brie.

Many communities concealed the numbers overnight with a fresh coat of paint.

“It was impossible for it to succeed, so they gave it up.”

Novelist and Napoleon try new numbering systems

Army general and novelist Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741–1803) was next to try.

“This man is more famous for the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses,” says Ms Brie. “His system was really, really complicated. It never worked.”

It did, however, inspire the numeral system that would shortly be imposed by Napoleon I. On February 4, 1805, the emperor announced that it would henceforth be compulsory to number Parisian buildings.

“Napoleon was clearly someone who liked order.

“The system was based on the way streets were aligned in relation to the River Seine. When the street was parallel to the river, the number was in red on an ochre background, and when it was perpendicular to the river, it was a black number on an ochre background,” Ms Brie says.

“It helped people to see where they were in the city.

“Even numbers were always on your right side, and odd numbers were always on your left side. So it was a very simple system. It quickly became common in large cities across France.”

Solution for ‘unlucky’ number 13

Napoleon’s method was encouraged across the departments from 1823 and clever solutions were put in place for issues such as islands on the Seine and superstition surrounding the number 13, which was replaced by ‘11 bis’.

In 1847, Claude-Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau (1781-1869), prefect of the former Seine department, initiated the familiar plaque-style, displaying white numbers and letters on a blue background.

Small communes finally name their streets

More recently, a review of the Projet de loi 3Ds was announced in February this year. 

One of the aims of the bill is to guide communes with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants to finally name and number roads. They had previously been exempt due to their low population figure. 

In addition, a growing number of places are renaming or designating new street names after women to redress a historical gender imbalance. 

Ms Brie says: ‘In my own village, the streets were only named three years ago. Mine is rue des Roses Trémières.”

A nod, perhaps, to naming traditions of yesteryear? “Yes,” she agrees. “It is a nice, poetic, and medieval revival for streets.”

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