The Address Book | Deirdre Mask

Summary of: The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power
By: Deirdre Mask


Embark on a compelling journey through the world of street addresses with Deirdre Mask’s ‘The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.’ With a rich blend of historical context, intriguing trivia, and thought-provoking discussions, this summary will shed light on how addresses impact government control, property values, and global poverty. From ancient Rome’s unnamed streets to the cultural impact of street names across history, expect an enlightening exploration of how the seemingly ordinary act of naming and numbering streets reflects crucial societal shifts and the ever-evolving balance of power.

The Fascinating History of Postal Addresses

Former Harvard Law Review editor Deirdre Mask’s book “The Address Book” offers a captivating journey through the history of postal addresses. With an entertaining writing style, Mask explores major historical turning points and unearth quirky trivia while also tackling deep issues such as the relationship between house numbers and government power, the influence of street names on property values and the lack of address as a poverty trap for millions of people worldwide. The book has received acclaim from various sources, including Time magazine’s 100 must-read books of 2020, and is a finalist for several awards.

The Power of Naming

Mask explores the contentious history of street names as a government tool for exerting power and facilitating state functions, including tax collection and policing. While the establishment of addresses was initially met with resistance, it coincided with a societal revolution that transformed the way we live and shape our communities. Mask demonstrates how street names are embedded in political and historical controversies, reflecting issues of class and race. With an array of examples, she highlights the complex and entangled intersections between society, power, and the act of naming.

Evolution of Street Naming

This book snippet explores the historical evolution of street naming. Street names and numbering buildings emerged from the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with “order and classification.” London’s initiative to standardize addresses meant that by 1871 the city had renamed 4,800 streets and assigned numbers to 100,000 houses. William Penn originated numbering streets and developing grid street plans in the United States. In ancient Rome, streets lacked names, and Romans navigated with the unique stench of certain neighborhoods or by memory. In medieval England, street names arose locally and organically, often offering navigational guidance. This evolution demonstrates the importance of standardization and organization for societal development.

Naming Streets

From the French to Mexico and Russia, naming streets after significant people and events is a tradition that is practiced worldwide. The street name changes too, depending on the prevalent political regime or power. While some countries have hundreds of streets named after a significant figure, others have unnamed streets due to past atrocities.

The Power of an Address

Did you know that a significant number of households worldwide lack street addresses? This means that slum residents in various countries can’t obtain state-issued IDs, resulting in numerous difficulties such as obtaining pregnancy support, schooling, and food subsidies. Addresses play a vital role in democracy, as they ease registering voters, maintaining infrastructure, fighting crime, codifying voting districts, and collecting taxes. The author notes that the World Bank and Universal Postal Union have created programs to provide addresses to people globally. The absence of an address creates an identity crisis in society, which one can solve with a mere address.

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