After I moved to Helsinki I spent a couple of months just wandering around the city centre. I walked wherever I could get on foot because transport fee was too pricy.
Most often a starting point for my trips was a small square in front of Stockmann. So one day I was walking along Esplanade, the Champs-Élysées of Helsinki, enjoying the view, listening to the summer mishmash of languages. Stockmann bookstore, the beautiful park, Ben and Jerry’s, a unicorn sign, the statue of… Wait! What? A unicorn?
A plaque on the side of a building with a picture of a unicorn! What does it stand for? Do all the streets in Helsinki have a picture of a mythical animal alongside a street name? Are there pictures of mermaids, hippogriffs, or dragons?
I spent the rest of my afternoon walking around the centre with my neck craned up on the lookout for the signs. I found quite a few! There was a hamster, a giraffe, and … the rest of them you can discover on your own. Spoiler alert: no more mythical creatures.
The origin of the animal pictures goes back to the Swedish urban nomenclature system of the 19th century. Back then every block or quarter in Stockholm was given a name in addition to a number. Owners of the corner buildings had to put signs with the name of the quarter. City blocks were given names along with numbers because they were easier to remember. I think, it was also a way for illiterate people to get their bearings around the city. Block names came from different areas such as trades, sea life, birds, people’s names.
In 1820 the same system was implemented in Helsinki. City blocks were named after domestic, wild animals and flowers. In the new city suburbs names of fish and birds were used. It is interesting that names of blocks in one district had to belong to the same theme.
The practice of giving names along with the numbers ceased in 1890s and since early 1910 Helsinki blocks have been indicated by numbers only. Probably, the double designating became redundant as literacy level went up.
The signs were reintroduced in 2000s by the city of Helsinki in the centre as a nice memento of times long gone.
Fancy saying this to friends when giving directions to you place: I live in the Unicorn block. It is right in front of the Giraffe block and next the Hamster.
Have fun looking for all the animals that live on the walls of the buildings in the heart of Helsinki :)
For more information on Helsinki street names check this Helsinki City Planning Department brochure.