Street Numbers and Signs: Quite A Project in 1920-21

By Harriett Burt

Walking or driving around town, it is easy to assume that street signs and house and building numbers have been there since the town was founded in 1848-49 or at least shortly thereafter.  But in fact, it was not until the town was 70 years old that the Martinez Chamber of Commerce pressured the City’s Board of Trustees (now City Council) to require that every intersection feature street signs and every property display its street number.  Signs, numbers and cement sidewalks were US Postal Service requirements for free home delivery.  Although there was a haphazard numbering of properties at this time, the Postal Service required an organized system. The city’s rapidly growing population, sparked by the opening of the Shell Refinery, produced amounts of mail that had to be picked up by the addressee.  It was overwhelming the small post office on Castro Street.  (see Post Office sign on the block between Main and Ward that was uncovered when the Hilson’s building was being renovated and upgraded.)  Free home delivery would relieve that and make it more convenient for residents to receive their mail.

In late November, 1920, the Martinez Chamber of Commerce’s Street Numbering Committee presented the Board of Trustees with a permanent plan for street numbering.  It proposed that numbers for the north/south streets begin at the waterfront.  The east/west numbers would start on the west side of town.  (ED. NOTE: That is why Green Street’s western most properties today have numbers starting with 0 as the Chamber’s plan did not consider the possibility of more westward development there).

There would be 100 potential numbers per block with a number assigned every ten feet.  The only exception downtown was at the City Hall Plaza which physically was located on the east end of the 600 block.  It was given the number 700 even though the buildings directly across the street have 600 numbers.  The committee acknowledged that there were parts of the city which had ‘irregular tracts’ not conforming to the US Ordinance of 1787 establishing the rectangular survey used for laying out open land acquired in the nation’s expansion.  California, having been settled by the Spanish and ruled for decades by Mexico, has areas on the coast to this day where street layout is irregular while areas in the interior valleys never controlled by Mexico or towns such as Martinez which was established on two land grants not developed during the Mexican period tend to have the rectangular survey using a north-south baseline running through the crest of Mt. Diablo.  A plan for the irregular tracts would be developed later according to the committee.

By early April, 1921, the Chamber committee returned with a plan for distribution.  A block book was prepared for each block with blanks to be filled in with the proper numbers.  The Chamber office would be open each afternoon from 1:30 to 4 p.m.  Property owners were asked to bring in a description of their property and the number of feet their house was located from the street intersection.  The Chamber purchased the aluminum numbers and would sell them to the owner at five cents per number.  No one, it was noted, would pay more than 20 cents to identify their home. 

“50 HOME NUMBERS SOLD IN ONE DAY’ according to the Daily Gazette headline on April 8, 1921.  The article went on to say that ‘an effort is being made to have the entire city numbered within the next few days by the co-operative effort of citizens.  If all numbers are not place in this way the city authorities will see that the ordinance is enforced and have officials make a house to house canvass to see that the correct number has been placed and the old numbers have been taken down.”

The April 1, 1921 edition of the Gazette noted that the Chamber has received ‘many congratulations’ on its plan for installing a city-wide house numbering system.

“Owing to the rapid increase in population of approximately 85 per cent during the last ten years and the enlarging of the residential area considerable difficulty has been experienced in the location of houses” according to the paper.

“The local offices of the Telephone Company, Gas Company, Light and Power Companies, Newspaper offices, newspaper agencies, laundry routes, Express Company and delivery routes are particularly interested in the proper numbering system.  In addition to this many of the local merchants doing a delivery business have expressed their anxiety to have the system installed and working as soon as possible.”

Alas, despite the Chamber’s Street Numbering Committee Chairman O. K. Smith’s optimistic prediction that the project would be completed soon, presumably the end of April, the “infrequent cases of non-compliance” continued until summer.  In late July, 1921, the stern headline “HOUSE NUMBERS MUST BE READY AT ONCE SAYS POLICE CHIEF” topped a story that Police Chief Charlie Palmer had met with the Chamber committee. It was decided that a canvass of the city would be made and any property owner that had not complied by August 2, would be arrested and subject to a fine not to exceed $25. 

By September, the Chamber’s point person, O. K. Smith, could announce to the Board of Trustees that all the houses and business places had been numbered, continuous sidewalks have been practically completed and all that remained was to place signs at each street intersection.

Smith added that the postal inspector admitted  that it was not customary to establish free delivery in cities as small as Martinez.  However an exception was being made for the city because of “the large volume of business handled by the local office and the cramped quarters of the post office brought about a condition that would be considered by the department.”

Smith, who would probably be nominated for Man of the Year by the Chamber  today for the work he put in on this project, also researched the cost of all 350 signs  which he said would be approximately $350 while the metal standards (or posts) to make them visible would cost about $400.  Trustee Roberts suggested that the Shell Company might be able to aid the city on purchasing the pipe for the standards through sale of pipe available at the refinery.  He did not mention asking for a cut rate or even a donation as far as is known. The matter was referred to the board’s finance committee to report on the following Monday.  In the end, $1000 was budgeted and presumably, the project was completed by sometime in 1922.  Unfortunately the County History Center’s set of bound copies of early issues of the Contra Costa Gazette end at 1920. 


Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160