The story of streets – and their addresses — is a fundamental part of the history of our villages, towns and cities. Deirdre Mask’s entertaining, informative book The Address Book tells us how the world got its street names and houses got their numbers. She then digs much deeper, explaining what addresses also reveal about identity, race, wealth and power.   


Near the beginning of her book, Mask introduces us to the second-oldest international organisation in the world, the Universal Postal Union, based in Switzerland. Founded in 1874, the UPU co-ordinates the worldwide postal system. The word ‘worldwide’ is actually a misnomer here. About half of the world’s population of 7.9 billion people live in places with no street names or house numbers. The UPU is trying to improve the situation with an initiative called ‘Addressing the World – An Address for Everyone’. Addresses, it says, would facilitate access to credit, voting rights and worldwide markets. Street addresses, argues Mask, are now a sign of identity: “In the modern world, you are your address,” she says.

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House numbers only appeared in the 18th-century, as part of the Enlightenment movement, with its idea of reason as the source of authority. But the idea was not to help people find other people, but to help governments find us, as Deirdre Mask told Speak Up.

Deirdre Mask (American accent): It seems like a natural thing that we’d want a house number or a street number, we really want people to be able to find us. But actually once the government can find you, they can do all sorts of things to you. So before, when there are no house numbers, and people are sort of living quite anonymously, it means that it’s harder for the government to find them, to tax them and to draft them, and to make them do things they don’t want to do, imprison them, perhaps, if they commit [a] crime. If you can go into an anonymous sea of houses, people can’t find you. So people understood that once they were numbered, the government could now find you, and they could now do things to you, and that’s actually, quite a scary thing. And now take it for ranted: of course the government can find us, the police officer can find us, if they needed us. But that wasn’t always obvious.


There are many famous addresses around the world: 221B Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes) and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (The White House) are two of them. The Americans, however, have made it a speciality to name their streets with numbers. New York, for example, is famous for 5th Avenue, the city’s most expensive shopping street. This interest in numbers, in fact, goes back four hundred years to the Pilgrim Fathers.

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Deirdre Mask: With the US, it was, at least to the colonists, not to the natives who lived there obviously, it was a blank slate, and gridding streets and numbering them was not only an easy way of marking up streets, but it also connected an idea of that Americans liked as this rational, democratic space,  which was linked, to a sort of Quaker ideal of neutrality. So Americans, not only did they have all this land that they needed to divide up quickly, and rather than come up with names, they numbered them, but it also reflected an idea of how Americans saw themselves.


Most of us take street addresses for granted. Mask, however, thinks they are fundamentally important, especially in the modern age.

Deirdre Mask: Street addresses matter. We sort of think of them as navigation, which is important – we need to be able to find each other and to get from one place to another. But, actually, in the modern world, street addresses have become a way that we identify ourselves to things like banks and schools. So, it’s hard to get a bank account without a street address, it’s hard to get your mail, it’s hard to register for services like doctors or benefits. It really becomes a matter of who we are. So, if you don’t have a street address, it means that you can’t access these services, but in some sense it can also mean that you feel that you don’t count.


Inadequate addresses are one of the main causes of global poverty. The UPU (with others) is trying to lift billions out of poverty with its campaign to ensure everyone around the world has an address.

Deirdre Mask: The Universal Postal Union - and the World Bank, as well – has done quite a bit in this [area] as well. Because it’s not that expensive but it has all of these huge benefits. If you think about taxation, for example, the way local governments work is through taxes. Now people don’t like to be taxed all of the time, but it’s extremely important. But if you can’t identify where people are living, and home ownership, and all of these other factors, it’s just impossible to tax people or tax them on any fair basis. And so, …so if you can just address people and find people, that’s a huge step towards getting very needed taxation income, which will improve the lives of all the inhabitants of a city.        


Perhaps the most important lesson that Mask has learnt from her research into street addresses is that they signify power.

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Deirdre Mask: Who are the people who write the street names? The people in power. Literally. You know, this is often governments and local governments. And one of the ways I often describe this is with female street names because the vast majority of streets that commemorate people are commemorating men. And I always say that the same people who write the history books are the same people who wrote the street names. Right? So people who’ve forever written history books about these men heroes, ignoring the women’s role in pretty much everything, were the same people who have printed the street names, and those are the people in power. So that’s kind of what I mean when I say street names are power, that they can show how power has shifted and changed, and now that we are getting more streets named after women, more street named after immigrants and minorities, and people who had different roles in the community, we’re seeing, hopefully, evidence of power shifts in society.

Missing Mapamundi

The world is not just missing billions of much-needed addresses. There are also large areas of the globe which are completely unmapped in our online world. In a fascinating TED Talk earlier this year covering online mapping platforms such as ‘Street View - my journey mapping the uncharted world’ - Zimbabwean photographer and product manager Tawanda Kanhema revealed that the unmapped areas on the African continent currently encompass no less than a billion people. In the terrible cyclone in 2019 in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, rescue workers were looking for survivors in completely unmapped areas. Using his own camera, and then a borrowed high-resolution camera from ‘Street View’, Kanhema photographed 2,000 miles of Zimbabwe. He has built maps accessible on both commercial and open-source platforms. In the talk, he said: “What the continent is lacking are maps that tell the story of how people live, work and spend time, illuminating environmental and social issues.” His goal is to create an open-source mapping platform, using the 600 million cell phones in operation “between Cape Town and Cairo”.