As it were

City wasn't born with address system


It is one of those things that most of us take for granted. Everyone alive in America today has grown up in a world where, in any town of any size, every house, shop and store has a street number. And because street numbers make it relatively easy to find one's way around the town, it is easy to assume that they have always been here and that every place with a street number has always had that number.

It would be gratifying if the world worked so easily.

For most of human history, most of the villages, towns and cities where people lived did not have street numbers at all. To find a person's home in early Columbus, one might get directions like, "Start at State and High streets and walk one block east. In the next block, look for the second house on the right."

It was not until 1512 that the earliest effort was made in modern Europe to begin to number the houses along a few streets. And this was only in the immediate vicinity of the Pont Notre Dame in Paris. Later, in 1765, the English Parliament passed a Postage Act that seemed to mandate house numbering. "Seemed" is the proper word here, since the act apparently did not begin to be vigorously enforced until 1805. And even then many parts of the country were not affected.

With this history, it should not be too surprising to discover that it took a while to get uniform street numbering in Columbus as well. In fact, it took 46 years.

Columbus, unlike many towns in Ohio, is a created city. There was no town on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto" until the Ohio General Assembly created a capital city at that place in 1812. Removed from the heavily traveled Lake Erie to the north and the Ohio River to the south, Columbus grew very slowly at first. The Ohio Canal and the National Road in the 1830s made Columbus a city of 5,000 people by 1834. The arrival of a railroad in 1850 led to further growth.

By the late 1850s, Columbus was a city of more than 15,000 people. The original town plat ran from Nationwide Boulevard to Livingston Avenue and from the River to Parsons Avenue. But over the years "additions" to that town plat had been made. The first addition in 1818 was what we today call German Village. Similar additions were being made elsewhere around the city as well. The new additions often were treated by their creators as small villages in their own right. A street running through the original town plat might find its name changed when it entered one of the new additions. Some parts of town had street numbers. Other parts did not.

Sorting out the various street names would take some time and would not be fully resolved until late in the 1800s. Street numbering was resolved somewhat more rapidly. The 1862 City Directory for the city explained how street numbering came to Columbus.

"In the spring of 1858, the City Council passed an ordinance setting forth that the houses of the city should be numbered and the manner in which it should be done. Two initial or starting lines were made; these were High and Broad Streets; the one running north and south, and the other east and west. The object of selecting these two was, that they are the only two streets in the city which extend through and beyond the corporate limits in each direction, thereby preventing the possibility of the necessity ever arising of changing, in any manner, the system; because no matter how far in any direction the city limits may hereafter be extended, the same initial or starting lines are still there," the directory explains.

"The houses are numbered east and west from High Street, and north and south from Broad Street; thus necessarily causing a division of the streets as N. High and S. High, N. and S. Front, N. and S. Seventh, and with streets running at right angles therewith, E. and W. Broad, E. and W. Town, E. and W. Friend (now Main), &c., &c."

"The even numbers are all upon the north and east sides of streets and the odd numbers are all upon the south and west sides."

"Not more than fifteen feet are allowed for each number, thereby preventing the probability of it ever becoming necessary to change the system in this particular, or to use the half number, as seldom, if ever, will a front be found to occupy less than that number of feet, but fronts are frequently found brought down to that limit ..."

Over the years, this system has been changed and adjusted but the essence of it remains. A later account notes that "the address scale of 700 per mile results in addresses approaching but not usually reaching 10,000 at the county's borders."

It is a simple system and it has worked quite well. There is probably a lesson of some sort in all of this.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.