If you’ve ever looked at items that were mailed a generation ago, you’ve probably noticed that something is consistently absent. Here, take a look:
Do you see what’s missing? (hint: look at the end of the address)
The reason behind this omission is that the Zone Improvement Plan Code system hadn’t yet been invented. First proposed in 1944 by postal inspector Robert A. Moon, it took nearly twenty years for the idea of a national coding system to be adopted. Hoping to improve the efficiency of sorting and delivering mail, Mr. Moon submitted several additional proposals over the years. He is now recognized as the father of the first three ZIP code digits, which are used to divide the country into roughly 900 geographic areas. The 4th and 5th digits, proposed by postal employee H. Bentley Hahn, were added to more precisely pinpoint locations, allowing a piece of mail to be placed on the most efficient route to its final destination.
Improved efficiency and faster delivery were clearly winning ideas, but the USPS still faced the challenge of convincing a whole country of people to buy in to the notion and start tacking five digits on to the end of their addresses. And change, even positive change, can be difficult to enact. So how did they do it?
They introduced Mr. Zip!
Originally named “Mr. P.O. Zone,” he’d been rechristened (good decision!) by the time he made his first public appearance at a 1962 convention where he posed for photos with all the attendant postmasters. In the 9 months leading up to the official implementation of ZIP Codes, Mr. Zip popped up all sorts of places–buttons, letter satchel decals, the side of mail trucks, posters, TV ads, rubber stamps–touting the benefits of using ZIP Codes.
Although ZIP Code implementation got underway in 1963, citizens were given several years to acclimate before ZIP Codes became a hard and fast requirement for sending mail. During this time, all sorts of promotional materials were created to encourage acceptance and use. Give a listen to the ZIP Code Ballad and see if it doesn’t endear you to those five special digits! (More ZIP Code PSAs can be found here.)
By the 1970s, USPS mail was nearly 100% ZIP Code compliant. Mr. Zip, having achieved his objective with great success, began making fewer appearances. Although not often seen in official capacity these days, Mr. Zip has been spotted here and there recently. So keep an eye out for him! And remember:
Sources* for Info about the History of ZIP Codes:
Martin, D. (2001, April 14). Robert Moon, an inventor of the ZIP Code, dies at 83. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/14/us/robert-moon-an-inventor-of-the-zip-code-dies-at-83.html
“What does ZIP Code stand for?” (2011, September). Journal of the Retired United Pilots Association, 14(9), p. 13. Retrieved from: https://www.rupa.org/uploads/RupaNews_09-11.pdf
* If you are intrigued and want to know more, I highly recommend checking out the National Postal Museum’s virtual exhibit. It has lots more information, as well as many examples of the promotional materials used to get the public excited about using ZIP Codes.