“Meet me at 517 Commercial St.,” we say, or “I work at 186,” without a second thought about the complexity behind the system of numbers that guides us though our towns.
When house numbers began to replace more individualistic signs in the 18th century, the reasons were administrative — and not always purely friendly. Numbers would make it easier to deliver messages but also to keep tabs on people.
Now that we’re used to offering up all sorts of information about ourselves, and not just for neighboring townspeople but for the entire internet to behold, house numbers are decidedly quaint by comparison. Handy for the rescue squad and the postal service. Practical for wayfinding. And even an opportunity for self-expression.
In San Francisco, the 1930s sculptural designs of Anton Fazekas are now an attraction. His tiny iron frames, each with a tiny lightbulb inside, set off the house numbers there in style. Venice has distinctive painted numbers on whitewashed backgrounds dating back to the time of Napoleon.
On a walk through Provincetown, the individuality of house numbers reveals something about us. Some are carefully chosen to suit the structures they identify. Some are purely practical. Many are whimsical. There isn’t one style here — ours are idiosyncratic. —Sofia Cabanas