When the 1700s began, Paris was divided into twenty quarters and there were no dwelling numbers on any houses. Streets acquired their name from either the name of a noble’s mansion, a monastery or convent in the area, or from a special shop or industry. At the local level, a dwelling on a street was easy to find as dwellings often had a plaque attached, although sometimes there might be several dwellings with the same name.
The idea of a house numbering scheme in France had been introduced in Pont Notre-Dame in 1512. It involved sixty-eight houses, but the idea was not popular and did not succeed. So, dwelling names continued to function as the primary way for people to obtain directions or find locations, and this method was used into the 1700s.
A new scheme to number house was then introduced in 1729. It also failed. In 1745, to better identify dwellings, home owners began placing unique lanterns outside their dwellings. Another method to get around Paris without getting lost involved its famous street lanterns. They were numbered and people could pinpoint their location using them.
The eighteenth century was also when the first street numbering schemes were applied throughout Europe. Although you might think dwelling numbers were established to help visitors find locations or make orientation easier, they were not. Dwelling numbers were actually used to help make the jobs of government, census, or tax officials easier. For instance, although King Louis XV of France decreed on 1 March 1768 that all French houses outside of Paris affix house numbers, these numbers were used to track troops quartered in civilian homes rather than for people to find a particular dwelling.
Despite Louis XV’s decree of 1768, dwelling numbers were still considered a casual thing and people thought of them as optional. This meant some people used a number on their dwelling and some did not. Towards the mid 1700s, Parisian almanacs also began to casual number houses in their lists “and soon this was found to be such a convenience … householders painted numbers on or beside their doors.” But ten years later, dwelling numbers were still not required, and despite some people painting numbers on their houses or doors, there was no consistency when or if dwelling numbers were used.
Because there was no consistency related to dwelling numbers, one person decided to take things into his own hands and handled the situation in the following way:
“In 1779, in Paris, houses (or, more exactly, the main doors) are numbered … on the initiative of Marin Kreenfelt de Storcks, editor of the Almanach de Paris. To make his street directory more efficient, Kreenfelt needs a system of homes addressing; at first he uses the numbers of the street lamps, but finally he has the idea to introduce numbering by himself. Kreenfelt and his assistants paint the numbers above or beside every door, beginning on one side of the street, continuing until the end of the street and finally numbering the doors of the other side of the street, so that the lowest and the highest number of every street are to be found vis-à-vis. The Paris police tolerates Kreenfelt’s work in the night that is peered at suspiciously by the Parisians; Kreenfelt will continue it until the end of the Ancien Régime using the numbers in his almanac.”
As dwelling numbers became more common a new problem appeared. People began fighting over dwelling numbers because according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier:
“[E]veryone wanted to have the number one in his or her street, all wanted to resemble Caesar, nobody wanted to be number two in Rome; if a noble entrance gate would be numbered after a common workshop this would implies a pinch of equality to be watched out for.”
Ten years later, when the French Revolution began, there was no clear scheme as to how to assign dwelling numbers. Dwelling numbers were also still uncommon in Paris. After the Revolution, Paris was divided into forty-eight sections or districts and at that time many city street names changed and all houses were renumbered. Each section then began to support a numbering scheme unto itself, and, in addition, each section disregarded any numbering scheme that existed in another section. Thus, dwelling numbering schemes in sections often began arbitrarily somewhere within its boundary. As a section included the farthest houses within its section, it meant that two houses next door to one another, but in different sections, might be numbered 1 and 1526.
As there was no rhyme or reason related to dwelling numbers between sections, the Parisian numbering scheme seemed strange to visitors. It was made stranger by the fact that the same street sometimes ran through several different sections. When this happened, there might be several houses on the same street with the same dwelling number but all in different sections. For example, one person noted that “he passed three numbers 42 in Rue Saint-Denis before he came to the 42 that he wanted.”
The whole number scheme changed under Napoleon when a decree about dwelling numbers occurred in February of 1805. The decree imposed a common street numbering system for the whole city, and many of the streets returned to their former names and a new scheme for numbering dwellings began:
“[E]ven numbers were placed on one side of the street [right] and odd numbers on the other side [left], both beginning at the eastern end of the streets that run parallel with the Seine, and at the river end of the streets going north and south.”
People found advantages to this new numbering scheme when it went into effect in the summer of 1805. It made sense and it brought order to Paris. Today, it is the same system used for identifying dwellings.
Tantner, Anton, Addressing the Houses: The Introduction of House Numbering in Europe, in éditions EHESS, 2009
Martin, Benjamin Ellis, and Charlotte M. Martin, The Stones of Paris in History and Letters, 1906