Mr. Zip Turns 50!

So, if you are over 50 years old, you were around “BZ” – before zip codes.  Now, for the big test question do you remember that the ZIP in Zip codes stands for Zone Improvement Plan – or maybe “Zone Improvement Program” or “Zoning Improvement Plan?”  Well, maybe no one remembers exactly and sources differ. What we do know is that the 5-digit zip code came into official existence on July 1, 1963 – 50 years ago this month.  It was not the post offices first attempt to bring some organization to the mail system.  Large cities in the U.S. had postal zones as far back as 1943, a wartime measure to help newly trained postal employees sort mail more quickly.

Ironically, the Zip code came into existence as a response to the same changes in technology that are now bedeviling the post office today – the revolution in computers.  Until the 1960’s mail moved primarily by rail to regional centers where it was then fanned out to its final destination.  The rise of business computing in the mid-century drove a huge increase in business mail – bills, catalogs, checks, banking and so forth, everything was traveling by mail.  The railroads had hit their peak earlier in the century and were beginning to decline as the family automobile replaced the family train ride and improving roadways offered transportation alternatives.  The U.S. Post Office was stuck in the middle and needed a good system to help support rapid mail distribution.  

Enter the Zip code.  A postal worker named Robert Moon is generally credited with at least roughing out the first system, at least to the three digit level in the 1940’s – with the old city postal zones providing some overlay.  

The first digit in the zip code represents a group of states.   For example Washington, Oregon, Alaska and California all begin with “9”; the second and third digits represent regions within that state grouping.   The fourth and fifth digits get down to specific areas, but do not necessarily correspond to cities.  Again, as an example 98368 is the zip code for Port Townsend, but also for a wider area in Jefferson County.  Most often, from the viewpoint of the US Postal Service, the first three digits identify a sectional center- the mail-sorting and distribution center for an area – and there can be more than one 3 digit code for a center. 

There is a general trend for east to west and north to south in the assignment of zip codes, but it isn’t as neat as you might think.  The lowest ZIP codes begin with ‘0’and many are in New England.  But other ‘0’ region zips are in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and APO/FPO military addresses for personnel stationed in Europe. Currently, the lowest ZIP code, 00501, is in Holtsville, New York, not New England, but that is because there is a U.S. Internal Revenue Service center there and you know how they are.  Our here in the west, we are number “9”.

 mrzip.jpg The new zip codes were not greeted with open arms in 1963.  Locating American citizens by a number has always engendered some opposition and in the case of Zip codes it was even a factor in moving the US Postal Service out of the Executive Branch of the government and setting it up as a quasi-governmental service.  The post office created some clever advertising and promotion to sell the notion to the American public.  Mr. Zip was a cartoon figure the postal service used extensively to promote the use of Zip codes and they even enlisted the aid of famous personalities such as Ethel Merman to do public service announcements. Obviously, they caught on – so much so that in 1983, the post office introduced zip + 4.  

Today, Zip codes have moved well beyond just mail sorting.  Today you can look at census data by zip codes to find out demographic and economic information.  The USCensus Bureau can give you business data on 40,000 zip codes.  We even have “famous” zip codes like 90210 – Beverly Hills and schools have considered using zip codes as a factor in admissions.  It may be just a number, but it says a lot about you.

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