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The Story of Number 10

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 5, 2010 01:30 PM

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The British Prime Minister's house, 10 Downing Street, isn't much to look at from the outside, and photos often focus on the somber front door with its iconic number 10. Unfortunately, according to type historian James Mosley, the 10 is "unaccountably crude in its design," "historically badly informed," and clearly painted by "a barely competent signwriter" - ultimately, "a pseudo-tradition that must surely be bogus."

front_door.jpg

Writing on his blog, Typefoundry, Mosley points out that the 10 is funny looking: the numbers are very widely spaced, and the zero is actually just the letter 'O' turned slightly on its side. It's often said that the bizarre lettering is "traditional," derived from a poorly installed brass zero which had always been on the door; but, by examining some archival photographs which he just happens to have in his vast collection, Mosley shows that the crooked zero was just a stupid mistake made by a lazy workman.

5 10 Downing St door 1964 1 a.jpg

Now, of course, it helps to create the illusion that "for the last couple of hundred years the Prime Minister has lived in a modest but comfortable town house in an unpretentious street within a few minutes’ walk of the House of Commons."

Blairs.jpg

Mosley teaches typographic history at the University of Reading and used to be the Librarian at London's St. Bride Printing Library. The whole post is wildly entertaining, especially the end - it combines typographic detail-mania, English cumudgeonliness, and a Roland Barthes-like "impatience at the sight of the 'naturalness' with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history." Everything starts somewhere.

Images from Mosley's blog, Typefoundry.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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