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Introduction: governmentality, house numbering and the spatial history of the modern city

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2012

Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3R4, Canada
Department of History, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria


This special section of Urban History explores the spatial histories of urban house numbering and the calculative rationalities of government since the Enlightenment. More than a mere footnote to the history of postal communications, the house number was first introduced as an inscriptive device to serve a wide range of governmental purposes, from military conscription and the quartering of soldiers to census-taking and the policing of urban populations. The spatial practice of house numbering can therefore be seen as a ‘political technology’ that was developed to reorganize urban space according to the dictates of numerical calculation. The articles in this special section examine the historical emergence of house numbering, and related practices, in different geographical circumstances, illustrating the spatial strategies of governmentality and the tactics of resistance that shaped the spatial organization of the modern city.

History of Urban House Numbering
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012 

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1 Foucault, M., Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978 (New York, 2007), 109.Google Scholar

2 Garrioch, D., ‘House names, shop signs and social organization in Western European cities, 1500–1900’, Urban History, 21 (1994), 2048CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joyce, P., ‘Maps, numbers and the city: knowing the governed’, in Joyce, P., The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003), 2061Google Scholar; Tantner, A., Ordnung der Häuser, Beschreibung der Seelen: Hausnummerierung und Seelenkonskription in der Habsburgermonarchie (Innsbruck, 2007)Google Scholar; Tantner, A., ‘Addressing the houses: the introduction of house numbering in Europe’, Histoire & Mesure, 24 (2009), 730CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community: urban house numbering, city directories, and the production of spatial legibility’, Journal of Historical Geography, 34 (2008), 286310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar To supplement this scholarship, one of the current authors has created a ‘Gallery of House Numbers’ as an online resource that documents the history of house-numbering practices in different cities (see For a more general discussion of state power and the production of legible spaces, see Scott, J., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998)Google Scholar.

3 Tantner, ‘Addressing the houses’.

4 For a discussion of the notion of ‘political technology’ in relation to modern governmentality, see Foucault, M., ‘The political technology of individuals’, in Martin, L., Gutman, H. and Hutton, P. (eds.), Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, 1988), 145–62Google Scholar; Foucault, Security, Territory, Population; also, see Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P., Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago, 1983)Google Scholar; Dean, M., Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London, 1999)Google Scholar; Bröckling, U., Krasman, S. and Lemke, T. (eds.), Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges (New York, 2011)Google Scholar.

5 Guillaute, M., Mémoire sur la reformation de la police en France: soumis au roi en 1749, ed. Seznec, J. (Paris, 1974)Google Scholar.

6 Paris was originally exempt from this royal decree because soldiers lived in barracks rather than among the populace at large. Pronteau, J., Les numérotages des maisons de Paris du XVe siècle a nos jours (Paris, 1966)Google Scholar.

7 Tantner, Ordnung der Häuser, Beschreibung der Seelen.

8 Trow's New York City Directory (New York, 1878), vii.

9 Rose-Redwood, ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community’.

10 Foucault, M., ‘Governmentality’, in Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, 1991), 102Google Scholar.

11 For a discussion of what Foucault calls the ‘urbanization of the territory’, which refers to the way in which calculative techniques of socio-spatial ordering historically emerged in the city and later provided a model for ‘arranging things so that the territory is organized like a town’, see Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 336. Also, an insightful analysis of the political technologies of territory is provided in Hannah, M., ‘Calculable territory and the West German census boycott movements of the 1980s’, Political Geography, 28 (2009), 6675CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elden, S., ‘Land, terrain, territory’, Progress in Human Geography, 34 (2010), 799817CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crampton, J., ‘Cartographic calculations of territory’, Progress in Human Geography, 35 (2011), 92103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rose-Redwood, R., ‘With numbers in place: security, territory, and the production of calculable space’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102 (2012), 295319CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 For a discussion of the household as a spatial unit of government in US legal history, see Shammas, C., A History of Household Government in America (Charlottesville, 2002).Google Scholar There is also a growing body of scholarship on the ‘home’ as a significant spatial category of social life; a concise overview of this research area can be found in Blunt, A. and Dowling, R., Home (New York, 2006)Google Scholar. Although such works provide considerable insights into the social production of ‘home’ as part of a broader set of place-making practices, the role of house numbering as a means of rendering the space of the home ‘legible’, and thereby amenable to governmental intervention, remains largely unexplored within this body of literature. Although Foucault does not provide a detailed genealogy of house numbering per se, his account of ‘the problem of the series’ highlights the mechanisms through which the ‘indefinite series’ of mobile and static elements (such as carts and houses, respectively) have been monitored and regulated through political technologies of calculation since the eighteenth century. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 20. Additionally, Foucault explicitly mentions the way in which ‘individuals were made visible’ by localizing each to a house in Foucault, M., Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (New York, 2003), 251Google Scholar.

13 The critical project of a ‘spatial history’ is elaborated in Elden, S., Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History (London, 2001)Google Scholar; for a somewhat different conception of spatial history, see Carter, P., The Road to Botany: An Exploration of Landscape and History (Minneapolis, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Appadurai, A., ‘Number in the colonial imagination’, in Appadurai, A., Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, 1996), 114–35Google Scholar.

15 Baldwin, L. and Grimaud, M., ‘Washington, Montana, the Dakotas – and Massachusetts: a comparative approach to street naming’, Names, 37 (1989), 115–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hamlin, F., ‘Numbers in placenames’, Names, 47 (1999), 233–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Farvacque-Vitkovic, C., Godin, L., Leroux, H., Verdet, F. and Chavez, R., Street Addressing and the Management of Cities (Washington, DC, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Curry, M., Phillips, D. and Regan, P., ‘Emergency response systems and the creeping legibility of people and places’, The Information Society, 20 (2004), 357–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rose-Redwood, ‘With numbers in place’.

17 Elden, Mapping the Present, 3.

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