History of Street Names and Street Naming in North America

A brief sketch of the history of street naming in America...

In the earliest days of urban development in what's now the U.S., streets tended to be named for landmarks, like Church, Market, Monument, Canal, Wall, Court, Dock, etc., obvious topgraphic or hydrological features like Hill or Water, or references to the street's position like East or Middle. Often major streets would be named for symbols of power and authority, like State or King or Queen; after the American Revolution, the names of heroes and leaders like Washington and Jefferson also served this role.

The whole concept was that a "street" was an urban feature (roads outside cities were subject to different rules and usually not named at all), and the word "street" tended to be an assumed descriptor rather than part of the name. Hence you see references to "Church street" or "Washington street" as opposed to today's "Church Street" or "Washington Street". Alleys, where they had names (for example, in Baltimore) were often named for the landowner, and had a possessive, like "Lenoir's alley".

There were important exceptions (the planners of New York's numbered streets and Philadelphia's tree names were ahead of their time), but in most American cities that was the pattern until around 1850.

It was then that an important cultural change took place which affected everything from gardening to literature: a shift in the view of Nature. Before this, Nature was seen almost universally (among Americans) as hostile, howling wilderness to be conquered. The new view took account of Nature as offering beauty, safety and cleanliness in contrast with the filth and crowding of the early industrial city. It was a romantic vision of picturesque English countryside, with trees and buildings scattered about in "natural" form rather than lined up in rigid rows.

There were many strands to this, all interrelated. One was architectural: a change from the cool, rational, ordered (and urban) Greek Revival style to the picturesque, romantic, assymetric Gothic Revival, a movement inspired by John Ruskin and A.W.N. Pugin in England and carried in the U.S. by A. J. Davis (architect of Lyndhurst, a famous Gothic mansion overlooking the Hudson River in Tarrytown NY, now a museum). Another strand was the Rural Cemetery Movement, which called for replacement of crowded and unsanitary urban churchyards with a spacious, non-denominational "park" outside of town, with grave monuments arrayed among plentiful trees and natural features: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. was one of the first and greatest models of this. Closely related was the new art of "naturalistic" landscape design, as practiced by Frederick Law Olmsted in Central Park (NYC) and other places. And the ideal of what we now call suburbia was born in this era: the notion of ordinary houses having lawns and trees around them.

Even as rural life was idealized, urbanization was proceeding rapidly. New cities were being laid out from Maine to California and older ones were expanding. But the new aesthetic had an impact on what all those new streets were called. It was at this time that the names of tree species suddenly became the dominant choices for street names: the leader among streets named in the 1850's is Oak, followed closely by others such as Elm, Maple, Pine, Walnut, etc.

After the Civil War, expansion of urban settlements was even more rapid. Most often these were "additions" to existing communities, done almost entirely by private real estate operators. Subdivisions with names like "Raymond H. Chase's Addition to the City of Springfield" were ubiquitous, and most often the streets were named for the developers and their associates. Tree names were still being used, but during this period the percentage of "surname" streets soared.

Meanwhile, especially out West where whole new cities were still being started, the creation of organized systems with grids of numbered or lettered streets was in vogue. There is an excellent book about this by John Reps, titled "The Forgotten Frontier: Urban Planning in the American West Before 1890".

Some time around 1880, the word "street" was displaced by "avenue"; the percentage of "streets" fell steadily and "avenues" rose just as quickly. By the turn of the century only a small percentage of the new thoroughfares being added had "Street" in their names.

In established areas, the growth of urban settlement took place along streetcar lines. In many older cities, you can recognize the major street where the streetcar line ran, crossed by many closely spaced parallel streets with long blocks of houses on narrow lots. Horsecars and eventually electric streetcars made it possible for even working people to commute miles from the center of town. On this topic, you might be interested in the book "Streetcar Suburbs", by Sam Warner.

Then, in the 1890-1910 period, came another intellectual and architectural revolution: the City Beautiful Movement. The Columbian Exposition in 1893 was composed of monumental white classical buildings arranged along a broad mall; this became a new, orderly vision for what cities could be like (in stark contrast to the crowded and messy reality). A leader in this was the architect Daniel H. Burnham, who is famed for supposedly saying "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Burnham had in mind the kinds of things that Haussman had done in Paris, sweeping aside whole parts of town to build wide boulevards and monuments, long vistas and colonnades, etc.

Classically inspired architecture surged back into vogue, as did the "colonial" styles of the eighteenth century. Words like "boulevard" and "park" and "court" became commonplace in street names of this period. More than that, the ambitions people had for their cities were expressed in the newly highfalutin' street names, like Majestic Terrace, or Buckingham Boulevard. Naming several streets in a subdivision for American states (i.e., states other than the one where the subdivision was located) took place most frequently at the turn of the century. For the first time, the developers started to choose street names with an eye toward shaping the image of their subdivisions, a practice that continues to this day.

After World War I, especially, came the automobile, and land use patterns changed drastically. Starting in the 1920's, "avenue" as a street descriptor was displaced by "drive"; by 1980, it was uncommon to see a subdivision street named anything other than "drive". English baronial imagery for new subdivisions was typical in the 1920's, along with Tudor architecture for suburban houses. But almost anything that evoked suburbia was used. The suffixes "-wood" and "-land" were tacked on to almost anything to coin street names. Floral names, names of famous colleges and universities, English counties, world cities, etc., all inspired street names. Developers in larger metro areas had to be especially creative. But the bottom line was the setting of a positive image for the development. The use of personal names (ordinary, un-picturesque personal names, I mean, like Macmillan or Maynor or Kestenbaum or Grissom) fell precipitously.

Another important and little-appreciated influence came from the rules imposed by the federal home financing agencies like the FHA. I'm not completely clear on the details, but the FHA had rules about how new subdivisions had to be planned in order to be eligible for FHA home financing. One requirement was for "curvilinear streets". So, especially after World War II, practically every subdivision in America had curvilinear streets which could easily be described as "drives".

Lawrence Kestenbaum

Books About Street Names in North American Cities

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Written and maintained by Lawrence Kestenbaum, creator of The Political Graveyard
Revised, January 28, 2009.