Where Is J Street? Three Competing Theories.

This will be a nice twist on our “Three Things…” theme. GoDC buddy Wayne emailed last week and asked the question that everyone asks. Where is J Street? Because it’s not where it’s supposed to be, between I and K streets.

There are quite a few theories on this, and below are three of the most popular ones.

1. A political rivalry?

Many believe the missing J Street is due to Pierre L’Enfant’s disdain for John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Why would L’Enfant hold such contempt for Jay?

John Jay
John Jay

Many amateur (and not very good) historians claim that it was due to the Jay Treaty, negotiated in 1794. The treaty averted the reignition of war between Great Britain and the young United States. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and the Federalist Party, with the support of President Washington, settled issues regarding remaining British troops in the northwest (i.e., just west of Pennsylvania), the northern border with Canada, and trade.

The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party was strongly against this, fearing closer ties with Britain, while leaning closer to, and favoring the French.

Being from rival political parties, Jay and Jefferson were at odds. Jefferson’s adoration of the French, L’Enfant being a Frenchman, tasked with designing the new federal city, plus Jefferson’s involvement in the new city, all allow people to draw the conclusion that the rivalry between Jefferson and Jay is the reason no J Street exists.

This sounds like a nasty, but subtle, way to get back at a political enemy. And, one that lasts for eternity (or as long as the  Federal City exists).

Sorry to burst your bubble, but this theory is false. Pierre L’Enfant had been relieved of his duties in 1792, basically due to stubbornness and inability to work well with others, and the job of designing the city was turned over the Andrew and Benjamin Ellicott. That’s a full two years before the Jay Treaty.

2. K is for kilo

The east-west streets of the new city, as laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, were to be in alphabetical order. The vision was already laid out for a grand public space, 400 feet wide, which would become the National Mall. Another grand boulevard was to travel between the house of Congress and the house of the President, to be named Pennsylvania Avenue.

Another grand street was made out of the 10th east-west street, north of the Mall. This street was to be twice as wide as the other streets and since it was the 10th street, it should have bore the letter J as its name. But, this is the street (and main thoroughfare) we now call K Street.

Maybe the instead of the 1000 block of any north-south street starting at J St., it should start at K St. After all, K is the universal symbol used to abbreviate the number 1,000.

Well, this too is false. K is short for kilo in the metric system, a the prefix derived from the Greek word meaning thousand. What debunks this theory is that the metric system was not introduced until 1799 in France, well after the L’Enfant Plan was formalized.

A theory that makes you sound really intelligent while telling it at bars, but … sorry, false.

1791 L'Enfant Plan of the new city
1791 L’Enfant Plan of the new city

3. Blame it on the Latin alphabet

Okay, ready for the true story behind the lack of a J Street in Washington, D.C.? It’s not nearly as creative as the previous two, but people will be impressed, nonetheless, when you share this with them.

The real reason behind our missing J Street is because in the English alphabet, the letter J looked too much like the letter I. The alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet, and there is no letter J in Latin.

On occasion, during the Middle Ages, a j would be used as a substitute for the final i in Roman numerals (e.g., iij for 3 instead of iii, or xxviij for 23).

So, the real story for the lack of a J Street is due to the similarity with the letter I, and to avoid any confusion, it was omitted from the city grid.

To add one more interesting J-related bit of trivia, in order to avoid the same letter confusion, there is no company J in a U.S. Army battalion. Interesting.

We should note that there is a Jay Street in Northeast. Also, read the Wikipedia article on the letter “J.” It’s pretty interesting.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Matthew Gilmore

    Over and over and over.
    The answer has always been 3. Simplest solution is best. You are labeling streets on a map and want to avoid confusion.
    The rest has always been nonsense.

  • Thanks, Tom! That’s good to know – can you point us to the documentation that talks about the I/J confusion for the naming of the street and also that for the missing Company J in the US Army?

    I knew if anyone could get to the bottom of this, it would be you.

  • B’Dale Res

    Why is there no X, Y, or Z streets either? I have heard the reason, but curious what you might know….

  • firecoalman

    I always assumed that was the case: also the reason why few states use the letter ‘Q’ on their license plates (too easily confused with “O”).

  • ZZinDC

    Or why I and Q streets are often spelled out: Eye, Que. (Though this seems to happen less and less.)

    Here’s a side question: Why is the avenue connecting the Capitol and the White House named for Pennsylvania? Ok, sure it was the site of the Continental Congresses, and a capital, but was there any competition/discussion over which states got which avenues? Having grown up in Maryland I’ve always thought it would have been more fair to name the primary avenue after the state which provided the territory for the District. (Particularly since Maryland Ave has not turned out to be all that prestigious. )

    • From what I understand, it was to compensate the state of Pennsylvania from losing the capital city to Washington

  • Sheila Gilbert

    I actually knew the answer to this one! Only because I collect vintage pocket watches, and a lot of watches from Europe have this issue. That is one of the first things a collector deals with when trying to figure out if a watch is a fake or not. There were many fakes made, and the wrong letter would give it away. Many people didn’t know the difference, and sellers of the fakes got away with selling a watch that was not the “real McCoy” that way. The mid 1800’s was famous for this.
    Famous watch makers would have the J in their names, fakes had the I. It also kept them form being charged too. It was up to the buyer to know the difference. Same today, you gotta know your Rolex or you lose.