Addressing styles on 18th-century English letters

Cristina Sasse's picture

Hi everyone,

I am currently working on a project on 18th-century trade directories and their role in providing direction as well as in restructuring urban space through practices such as house numbering. It appears likely that directories helped to establish standardized and more concise forms of addressing. However, it is not entirely clear whether the styles of address suggested in directories were indeed adopted by letter writers. Therefore I would like to look at samples of letters and envelopes of the late 17th through early 19th centuries to determine whether any changes in addressing can be observed.

Does anyone know any larger collections of letters in British archives that might be worth looking at?

Many thanks,


Greetings Cristina,

I can only offer solid information on house numbers in Philadelphia in the eighteenth (and nineteenth) century. Uniform house numbering did not go into effect until the mid-19th there.

The British Library has a (seemingly) endless supply of letters in their manuscript collections. Most of the writers I've seen from c18 (thousands of them) used the following on the cover fold (there was not usually an envelope):

Recipient's Name (sometimes with "c/o" and the person they were staying with or the boarding house/tavern)
Recipient's Street

This was the case for merchants and non-merchants alike.
Persons of status who lived at a distance from the city would mostly use their house (well, mansion, really) name as their address.

I hope this helps.

All the best,


Paul Sivitz, PhD
Department of History
Idaho State University
Co-Director, Mapping Historic Philadelphia Project

Cristina --
I have notes from NYC newspapers of the 1780s indicating that advertisers had begun to give an address with a house number in their ads.

The first one is:
LYON JONAS, FURRIER from LONDON, At the sign of the TIGER and MUFF, No. 21, Broad Street, opposite the Post-Office. . . . [with an illustration of the sign]
N-Y Gazette; and the W Mercury, December 10, 1781, p. 4, col. ?

HENRY BREVOORT, At the sign of the Golden Frying Pan, Queen-street, between the Fly-Market and Burling-slip, No. 20, has just imported from Bristol, a large and general assortment of ironmongery and cutlery. . . .
Royal Gazette, January 24, 1778, p. 4, col. ?

I also had correspondence with Joel Berson, sadly recently dead, who was noting the use of house numbers in Boston.
There is actually a book on old house numbers, illustrated with striking photographs. I bought it, illustrating the old proverb, A Thompson and his money are soon parted. Regardless of that, the introduction to that book argued that house numbers were introduced as a means of social control. A fashionable explanation, surely, and perhaps even in part true. I hold the prosaic notion that house numbers were taken up in American cities as the cities grew too large for people to be content to wander down a street looking for a shop sign.
If you are interested in what I have, and what I can find in the emails Berson & I exchanged, you may contact me off-list -- If the list clamors to be in on the matter, I will accommodate.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

By the time of the Horwood map of London (1792-9) London streets were extensively numbered:

In 1762, the Westminster Paving Commission was set up and its founding Act of Parliament allowed the Commissioners to fine householders if they removed or covered up their house number. Several other paving commissions were created in the decade and their rules often specified colors and sizes of house numbers. They also required street signs be put up and regulated what could and could not be put or done on the pavement (sidewalks for the Americans). In the City, the Commissioners of the Sewers took on this kind of regulation. I can provide more specific references/citations if needed. I have an unpublished conference paper/article I have been working on for a while about order in the streets as an aspect of what the 18th-century commentators like Jonas Hanway called 'police.'

Elaine A. Reynolds
William Jewell College