Encountering a new city for the first time can be confusing at times and finding your way around can throw up challenges when you least expect it. How about when you are looking for somewhere to live and you go to a house viewing, only to be encountered with the exact same number on two adjacent front doors?! What is that all about – and why is one of the numbers red and the other black? Read on to find the answer!

Seeing double

Haarlem house numbers

When I first moved to Haarlem, I didn’t think much of the two little letters ‘ZW’ next to my house number. I just assumed they were part of the address and meticulously copied them down every time I had to fill in my address. After a while though, I noticed that in many streets, the same number seemed to exist twice, on doors right next to each other: once in red and once in black. After learning more Dutch, I realised what those little letters next to my house number meant: ‘ZW’ was short for zwart (black) and ‘RD’ for rood (red). So, what is the secret behind these red and black house numbers?

Haarlem house numbers

Ground floor or upstairs apartment

The letters – and corresponding colours of the numbers – are all linked to the location of the apartment in the building. The black number always refer to the place on the ground floor and the red number belongs to the upstairs flat. Often there will be no letters – you will just see two front doors with the same number in a different colour. These double house numbers can be found in the centre and the north of Haarlem, as well as in parts of Heemstede. If you live in a new house, you might have never noticed this black/red system, as it’s only used in old houses. This is also an important clue to solving the secret behind the red and black numbers.

Numbering system introduced by the French

The secret of this numbering system was revealed by Haarlem city guide Walter Schelfhout to Indebuurt in a recent article. The red and black house numbers are a piece of history still visible today that were introduced during the so-called French Period between 1794 and 1815 when big parts of Northern Europe, including the Netherlands, were under French rule. Back then, apartments on the ground floor would pay less tax than apartments on the upper levels. The black and red numbers were indicators for the tax inspector.

House numbers in other Dutch cities

The black/red system is not unique to Haarlem – it also occurs in Deventer – and, according to Wikipedia, there are also special numbering conventions in other Dutch cities. Addresses in Maastricht and Leiden use a combination of numbers and letters, and old houses in Amsterdam can sometimes have the additions of ‘huis’ and ‘sous’ (short for souterrain) to refer to an apartment on the ground floor or the basement, respectively.

Double house numbers can be found in the centre and the north of Haarlem

So, keep an eye out for those black and red numbers next time you go for a walk around Haarlem. Once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere!

[Sources: Indebuurt; Wikepedia

Karin Brötzner
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