Names and Numbers
The Address Book

Names and Numbers

Deirdre Mask provides an unlikely fascinating history, overview and cultural analysis of street addresses.

If you crave a comprehensive history of postal addresses – don’t laugh, you might – this finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, Goodreads Choice Award, Porchlight Business Book award and one of Time magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020 should satisfy your deepest desires. Former Harvard Law Review editor Deirdre Mask turns out to be a sparkling, entertaining writer who makes this potentially soporific subject fascinating.

She sketches major historical turning points and unearths quirky trivia while tackling thought-provoking issues – such as how assigning house numbers enhances government’s power, how street names influence property values and how the lack of an address traps millions of people in poverty worldwide.


Mask explains that initiatives to name streets and create building numbers – to establish addresses – arose in the past few centuries and often met resistance. Many viewed the numbering of houses as an assault on individual freedom. Governments understood that an efficient system for knowing who lived where granted the state power and facilitated state functions such as tax collecting, policing and conscription. 

The Enlightenment project to name and number our streets has coincided with a revolution in how we lead our lives and how we shape our societies.Deirdre Mask

Mask’s theme – which she illustrates with myriad examples – is that street names are entangled with controversies over history, politics, class and race. 

Street Names

Historians believe, for example, that in ancient Rome – a famously organized city – most streets lacked names and that Romans navigated by memory or by the unique stench of certain neighborhoods. 

Turn to your left, go straight along the street and when you come to the temple of Diana turn to the right. Before you come to the town-gate, close by the fountain there’s a baker’s shop and opposite it a carpenter’s workshop. That’s where he is. Ancient directions from the Roman playwright Terence 

In medieval England, street names arose locally and organically. A name might offer navigational guidance – for instance, people would call a street the London Road because it led to London. Thus Church Streets and Station Roads remain abundant across Britain.

Mask cites historian Anton Tantner, who explains that naming streets and numbering buildings emerged from the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with “order and classification.” 

In 1840, Mask explains, England instituted a “penny post” mail system, which meant people rich and poor could send mail – for a flat rate – to or from anywhere in the country. London’s initiative to standardize addresses meant that by 1871 the city had renamed 4,800 streets and assigned numbers to 100,000 houses.

In central London, you could write to invite a friend to dinner in the morning and have the reply well in time to order an extra joint of beef.Deirdre Mask

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, originated numbering streets and developing grid street plans in the United States. Penn laid out Philadelphia’s streets on a grid and numbered all the city’s north-south streets. He named cross streets for plants, including Cherry Street and Chestnut Street.

Politics and Marketing

The French, Mask suggests, probably inaugurated using street names to commemorate people and events. 

In Croatia, the main street of Vukovar has changed names six times in the 20th century, once with each change of state. Deirdre Mask

Mexico follows this pattern with hundreds of streets named for the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and Russia has thousands commemorating Lenin. Streets can also be unnamed; Nazi Germany renamed any street commemorating Jewish notables.

The Addressless

Mask offers the surprising fact that most households worldwide lack street addresses. Without addresses, slum residents in many nations can’t get state-issued ID cards, which they need for pregnancy support, schooling, food subsidies and other day-to-day civic functions.

An address, today, is an identity; it’s a way for society to check that you are not just a person but the person you say you are.Deirdre Mask

The World Bank and Universal Postal Union, the author found, formed programs to provide addresses to people around the world. Addresses helped democracy thrive, Mask emphasizes, because they ease registering voters, codifying voting districts, maintaining infrastructure, fighting crime and collecting taxes. She explains that homeless Americans face extreme difficulties voting, opening bank accounts or applying for jobs.

Names from the Confederacy

Mask also learned that in the American South, more than 1,000 street names commemorate Confederate leaders, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader, Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Most of all, [street names] are about power – the power to name, the power to shape history, the power to decide who counts, who doesn’t and why.Deirdre Mask

Most of these names were instituted early in the 20th century, Mask emphasizes, when Jim Crow laws arose to suppress Black Americans, and during the 1950s and 1960s, in reaction to people challenging Jim Crow.


In the late 1800s, New York landlords formed the West Side Association, which sought to boost property values on the west side of Manhattan, then mostly slums. The association replaced avenue numbers with posh-sounding names, including West End Avenue, Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.

In the 20th century, New York City unveiled its “vanity address program,” allowing developers to purchase desirable addresses. Developers constructed a building on East 60th Street, for example, with an official address of 520 Park Avenue. The developers bought the address from Park Avenue’s Christ Church, agreeing to pay $30,000 a year for 100 years.


In England, Mask reports, the start-up company what3words, divided the world into three meter by three meter squares. They assigned each square a unique combination of three words to give every spot on the planet an address. With the what3words system and a GPS, you can navigate your way to any location on Earth. 

The more things change, the more we feel the need to anchor ourselves to the past. Street addresses have become one way to remember. Deirdre Mask

Google created Plus Codes to assign numbers and letters to every point on the globe. Addressing the Unaddressed uses Google’s technology for its projects in India’s slums. Facebook partnered with MIT researchers to create a navigational algorithm – Robocodes. Because these systems assign addresses strictly by geography, they avoid the built-in biases of traditional addressing.

Welcome Nonfiction

Deirdre Mask organizes her information well, and – unlike many researchers into arcane subjects – she really can tell the difference between what fascinates readers and what fascinates only the author. The result is a witty, in-depth, prescient analysis of something everyone takes for granted. In other words, the most welcome kind of nonfiction – consistently revelatory, compelling and astute. Her way of connecting addresses to issues of power and race proves graceful, never forced and eye-opening.

Works on parallel themes include The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews