House Numbers & Chinoiserie

The style of common American house numbers was influenced by Chinese design.

There is a fairly ubiquitous design style to the address numbers on American houses. While there are some variations to the design it’s essentially a brush script typeface.

The earliest example of this typeface is the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog of letters & numbers, a catalog of physical type to be used in signage, monuments, headstones, etc. Described as simply “Door Numbers” with no comment on the design, the catalog offers two different styles of numbers with the other being more of a traditional serif typeface. It’s the brush script set of numbers though that we see most frequently, but why?

A collection of houses with variations of the typeface found in the Knight & Son catalog.


From the late 17th through the 18th century there was a European fascination with things from the East and in particular China. Europeans emulated the Chinese decorative style and incorporated it into their own work. “Chinoiserie” is essentially French for “Chinese style” and came to encapsulate this orientalist movement of European produced creations that were designed in a (sometimes loose interpretation of) Chinese style. In the 19th century there was a Chinoiserie revival which lasted into the 1920s. The Art Deco movement was strongly influenced by designs from China (just look at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Which brings us back to H. W. Knight & Son in 1927.

Some examples of Chinoiserie and how the Chinese design style influenced the Rococo style of the 18th century.
The Chinoiserie revival of the 19th century extended into the Art Deco of the 1920s.

The design of the H.W. Knight house numbers was influenced by the Art Deco Chinoiserie style of the day. Looking at traditional Chinese calligraphy as well as more modern Chinese inspired fonts it’s easy to draw a connection between these house numbers and Chinese designs. In 2006 Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside which is a new font inspired by the H. W. Knight & Son typeface.

Drawing on the script numbers from the the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog, Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside.

Uppercase & Lowercase

The terms we use for different letterforms come from how they were stored.

In the beginning, there were capital letters (majuscule letters). The written languages of the Ancient Greeks and Romans were both in all caps. The Roman square capitals and the Roman calligraphic script eventually generated Uncial script. Uncial was used between the 4th and 8th centuries and continued the style of all caps. Around the late 8th century however, the Benedictine monks of Corbie Abbey in France began using a new style of writing which became the Carolingian script. Carolingian could be written faster than Uncial script because it used a new style of letters: lowercase (minuscule letters). What this meant was that some European countries now had two different styles for each letter of the alphabet. These different letterforms meant the same things, and were pronounced the same ways, but they looked different.

While these letterforms started off isolated to their respective styles of writing, over the centuries they began to commingle. This merger of letterforms was partially inspired by the decorative initial caps in illuminated manuscripts. It wasn’t until the 14th century that grammatical rules began to define when to use a majuscule letterform in otherwise minuscule text (such as capitalizing the start of a sentence, or someone’s name, etc).

Uncial script on the left (a portion taken from The Book of Kells) compared to Carolingian script on the right.

Majuscule minuscule, uppercase lowercase

Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1439. The printing press allowed individual metal letters to be assembled together to print information. All of these metal letters were organized into trays/drawers/cases. The majuscule letters were used less often and so were placed higher up. The minuscule letters were used the most and were placed the closest to the worker setting the type. Because of their position these higher elevated majuscule letters became known as “uppercase” while the easier to reach minuscule letters became “lowercase.”

A 20th century type drawer/case.

An explanation of uppercase and lowercase letters and how these terms originated with the printing press.

Added bonus: Not all languages have uppercase and lowercase letters. Unicase languages include Arabic, Hebrew, and Georgian to name a few. That said, while Arabic doesn’t have the capitalization rules that Latin derived languages now have, Arabic does utilize the IMFI writing system. Based on the position of the letter in a word or sentence (initial, medial, final, or isolated), one of four different shapes are used. So instead of the two letter form variations that the Roman alphabet has Arabic has four but for different reasons.