The History of House Names
Ancient House Names
There is no evidence that Neanderthals named their caves, but it seems likely that people have always named their houses. House names dating back to Babylonian and Assyrian times have been documented, and patrician Romans often gave descriptive names to their villas. The ancient German city of Trier still boasts of its House of the Three Magi, built in 1230, and Lincoln has The Jew's House, which dates to around 1150.
In Britain, house names were traditionally the only way of identifying a house. It wasn't until the Postage Act of 1765 that house numbering was introduced in some areas; to this day, there are regions where houses are only named. The earliest house names tended to be descriptive, e.g. Copped Hall, The Greene Gate.
House Names up to the 19th Century
As house names became more common in the 12th century, they were often derived from the names of people connected with them. Exeter House was the London home of the Bishop of Exeter, while the Earl of Arundel lived in Arundel House.
Names were primarily given to large and prominent houses belonging to the aristocracy. Such names were often single, free-standing words: Belmont, Broadlands, or the Rosings and Pemberly of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Of course, it was not unheard of for commoners to name their houses: in her invaluable little book on house naming, Joyce Miles notes several names from the 1700s, including Duckpool, Tadhill, and even Tumbledown Dick's.
The rise of a prosperous business class in the 19th Century brought the building of large town houses. These were often given dual names incorporating the words "House", "Lodge", or even "Villa". Later in the century, names of trees were frequently chosen to grace a house: The Beeches, The Hawthorns, or The Laurels.
House Names in the 20th Century
With the spread of house ownership, particularly in the early 20th Century, less grand house names became more common. It sounds pretentious to call a semi-detached house in the suburbs Rose Villa, but Roseville is just right. In the 1930s, personal names began to find their way onto house signs, followed quickly by a trend of combining the names of the residents. Thus Samantha and Dennis's house becomes Samden, while Terrence and Nellie lived in Ternel.
After the Second World War, society became increasingly less prudish about discussing personal finances in public, and house names began to incorporate more or less wry references to the cost of the house, or statements of pride of ownership. Costalot and Itskintus vied with Dunowin and Myowne; Joyce Miles tells of one couple who called their house Orwell, explaining that they looked forward to finally paying off the mortgage in 1984.
What's in a House Name?
In some cultures, the house name serves a surprisingly central function role. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Frances Pine describes how house names in rural Poland are frequently used instead of surnames: "The house name indicates kinship and confers social identity and this is the name by which a person is known to all other villagers." The same phenomenon has been observed in rural Catalonia.
In Britain, the function of house names is a little more prosaic. Firstly, they can act as the address for the house, ensuring that post sent to that address will reach the house. Now that most houses in Britain have numbers, however, this function is considerably less important than the second reason people name houses, namely, to make a statement about their house and themselves.
The practice of naming houses has a venerable history, but serves a modern function. In the increasingly competitive property market, a well-chosen house name can give a property that little edge. As importantly, though, it can turn a mere building into an expression of its owner's character: in short, it helps make a house a home.