Remembering Mr. ZIP

MrZIPThe U.S. Post Office – now the U.S. Postal Service – introduced ZIP codes in 1963. They engaged Mr. ZIP to promote their use. Check him out in this groovy song.

The U.S. Post Office – now the U.S. Postal Service – introduced ZIP codes in 1963. “ZIP” is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan. They engaged Mr. ZIP to promote their use. Check out this groovy song.

Mail volume increased dramatically in the first half of twentieth century. In the previous century, social correspondence made up the preponderance of mail. As the country transitioned from a predominately agricultural economy to an industrial one, the nature and volume of mail changed. Business mail – advertising, social security checks, credit card, billings and payments of all descriptions, magazines – came to be 80% of mail volume by the 1960s. The mail handling system could not keep up.

In the thirties, most mail moved by train. More than 10,000 trains carried mail to big cities and rural villages. Much of the mail was sorted en route. In succeeding decades, as mail volume exploded, train routes shrank.

The precursor to ZIP codes was the city zone, introduced in 1943. Large cities were divided into numbered zones to speed sorting of the mail. The zone was entered on the address line between city and state, e.g. Portland 11, Ore.

The ZIP code was a step to increase efficiency. “ZIP” is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.The name suggested that the mail travels more efficiently, and therefore more quickly (zipping along), when senders use the code in the postal address. Using ZIP code was not required, but a few years later it became mandatory for second- and third-class bulk mail.

At the same time the ZIP code was introduced, the Post Office, for the sake of uniformity in addresses, also designated a two-letter code for each state. The preferred layout became Portland OR 97211.

The five-digit ZIP code begins with zero in the northeastern states – 030-038 in New Hampshire – and increases as it moves south and from east to west. The Pacific Coast is the exception: California ZIPs are 900-961, Oregon 970-979, Washington 980-994 and Alaska 995-999.

In 1983, the Postal Service expanded ZIPs to “ZIP + 4,” creating a nine-digit code for every address.

ZIP codes can confer status. Beverly Hills, part of the city of Los Angeles, has its own 90210. The ZIP 85254 is assigned to the affluent Scottsdale AZ, even though 85% of its territory is inside Phoenix.

ZIP codes have become ubiquitous, with myriad uses other than the Postal Service. UPS, FedEx and other delivery services employ the ZIP code. Business marketers heavily use the Census Bureau’s compilations of economic data by ZIP code. Insurance companies promulgate rates based on ZIP codes. Many web sites use ZIP-driven software for locating the nearest store or dealer. You’ve probably been asked for your ZIP when making a purchase or paying for admission to a museum or tourist attraction. Their motives can go beyond marketing and are not always altruistic.

Businesses are heavy users of ZIP codes, one example of private enterprise benefiting from a Federal Government scheme.


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