The Numbering of the streets of Paris

For most of the period covered by this work, houses and other buildings in Paris were not numbered. Identification of residence or place of activity was achieved either by specific geographical location or by a trade sign (enseigne), or by both. L. P. F. Lennel, for example, could be found, c. 1770, on the ‘Quai de l’Ecole, entre le café de Parnasse et le miroitier, à la Sphère (On School Quay, between the Parnassus Café and the mirror-maker, at the sign of the Sphere); Ciceri a decade or so later in the ‘Grande rue du Faubourg S. Martin, la deuxième porte cochère après le laisser-passer’ (the Main street of the Faubourg St Martin, the second carriage entrance after the ‘laisser-passer’). Locating an instrument-maker by such means was considerably eased from 1728 onwards when the names of streets were formalised and marked on each corner. At first the names were written on plaques of white metal but by an order of 30 July 1729, these were progressively replaced by rectangular stone slabs incised with the name of the street and the number of the district. Many of these may still be seen in situ today.[1]

            Numbering buildings in the streets so named took rather longer to arrive. With the exception of the sixty eight houses erected on the Bridge of Notre Dame when this was rebuilt in the early 16th which, since they were let and subject to taxation, were numbered for the convenience of their municipal administrators, and a few other areas where the city owned several properties, no part of Paris was numbered before the early eighteenth century. The first systematic numbering to appear was restricted to the faubourgs. It was carried out as part of government attempts to control the expansion of Paris. Existing houses with doors for carriages or wagons (portes-cochères; portes charettières) were to be numbered and mapped so that any new building could easily be identified. The numbering was also convenient for taxation and other purposes of the municipal administration. This system, established by decree in 1724, was extended in mid-1726 to the Paris-side borders of contiguous country parishes.

            This first application of numbers to some Paris buildings was carried out, it should be   emphasised, purely for the convenience of civic administrators. There was no thought of facilitating the finding of a shop or habitation. Nonetheless that the numbers could serve this purpose was not lost on the compilers of almanachs, and from at least 1762 such numbers, where they existed, were indicated as part of an address. Whether it was this new usage, or simply the old convenience of numbering to administrators, that led to their first application intra muros during the reconstruction of the area around the new Halle au Blé built between 1762  and 1768, cannot be decided, although the fact that this was a municipal development and that numbering was not applied anywhere else, tends to suggest that the latter was the case. When an effort was made to extend numbering to all Paris within the walls in 1779, it was a private initiative carried out by the proprietor-editor of the Almanach de Paris, Marin Kreenfelt de Storcks (d. 25 February 1798), agent for the affairs of the Elector of Cologne in Paris. He, as Auguste Savinien Leblond explained, on undertaking to produce an annual directory of addresses discovered ‘the difficulty, not to say impossibility of determining any of them precisely without long explanations as cumbersome to print as they remained uncertain for the reader… he [therefore] assigned numbers to all the doorways in the main streets. The police allowed this the more readily as they recognised the utility that they would be to them in their task of surveillance, and shortly all the public services, including those of taxation adopted these numbers’[2].

            Kreenfeltís system, which numbered in a single series each door in all the main streets of Paris, beginning on the left side of the street and returning up the right so that the first and last numbers faced each other, was destroyed in 1791 by, as Leblond expressed it ‘the fanaticism of innovation, too often taken for ameliorative zeal’. Paris was divided into forty-eight administrative sections each of which was to have a single series of property numbers. These were to begin in the East and, turning through successive circles, end at the centre.[3] The sole purpose of this numbering system was to identify properties for taxation. Carried out differently in the several sections, it led rapidly to confusion; the commodity of the inhabitants and users of the city was totally ignored.

            Nonetheless it lasted until 1805, its use being also prescribed in Marseille, Lyon and some other towns. On the 4 February 1805 however, a new system was adumbrated by Imperial decree in which each street was to have its own distinct number series applied to the buildings, not to the doorways. Even numbers were to be applied to the right hand side of the street, odd numbers to the left. Red numbers were to used in streets running parallel with the Seine, black numbers in those which formed an angle with it and, after some confusion in the drafts of the decree, numbering was to begin from the Seine. The decree was immediately implemented. Numbering, which was at the charge of the administration, began in late June and the new numbers, ‘painted in oil with nails, background and letters shaded[4]’, were set in standard cartouches in order to distinguish them from the various older numberings that could be found around the doorways of the buildings. The new numbering was immediately used in the almanachs. Tynna’s Almanach de Commerce for 1805 employs the sectional numbering of the Revolution, the issue for 1806, the new imperial numbers.

            The decree of 1805 established the basis of the Paris street numbering system used today. The expansion of the city in the following half century, and the lack of concern manifested by its inhabitants for the upkeep of their house numbers, meant that a revision of street numbers was undertaken between 1847 and 1851. It was at this time that enamelled ceramic plaques with white numbers on a blue ground were introduced, as also the principle of numbering non-built sections of a street or very long buildings every fifteen metres. With only minor adjustments in a decree of 1939, in particular prescription of the familiar blue enamelled metal plaque with white numbers, this is the system that still in force today.

            The addresses given in the entries for makers in this dictionary record, with dates where possible, what is to be found on the instruments themselves, in their makers’ publicity, and in directories. We have commented on these addresses in relation to dating where necessary, but no attempt has been made to correlate old addresses with either past or present topography. The ways in which this can be done, and the relation between the different addresses, is explained at length by Jeanne Pronteau who also reproduces in full the concordance of pre- and post-1847 numbers published by Félix Bottin in 1851. For the purposes of the present work we have restricted ourselves to examining the implications of address changes for the dating of instruments.


[1] This account is based almost exclusively on the authoritative treatment of the subject by Pronteau which contains a full bibliography of previous work on the subject, while making most of it redundant. A brief summary is offered by Hillairet i, 34.

[2] ‘Numérotage des rues de Paris, mémoire lu au Lycée des Arts’, A. N F13/511 & B. N.  8° Lk76622. translated from Pronteau 83 note 87.

[3] Decree of the Assemblé Nationale Constituante 23 November 1790, cited from Pronteau 89.

[4] Diary of the architect A. L. T. Vaudoyer cited from Alfred Franklin, La vie privée autrefois [xxv], Variétés parisiennes, Paris 1901, 89.


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