It’s not easy to get Americans to make wholesale changes to the systems they’re used to simply by declaring that they must. Ask anyone who enthusiastically tried to institute spelling reform or get the metric system to take hold.

So it’s surprising that just a little more than 50 years ago the Postal Service announced major changes to the way we were supposed to address our letters and postcards, and we actually went along with it.

The old way

In 1960 we still addressed letters the old way: Name, street address, city, state. There was no ZIP Code and the state might be written out in full, or abbreviated with 2 (N.Y., Vt. ), 3 (Nev., Tex.), 4 (Okla., Mich.) or 5 (Calif.) letters. Postal workers not only had to contend with bad handwriting and misspellings, but also with missing information that made it harder to get the mail to its destination.

The mail did get there through snow, rain, heat, and “gloom of night” (in the words of the unofficial motto of the Postal Service), but not in the most efficient way.

According a gripping 2013 report by the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General titled “The Untold Story of the ZIP Code,” “before the advent of the ZIP Code and automated sorting mechanisms, the average mailed letter was handled by eight to 10 postal employees.” In the 1960s, a project for automation and efficiency began.

Cracking the code

Postmaster General Edward Day introduced the idea of the 5 digit ZIP Code. It was to expand on a 2 digit internal coding system that had been in place for grouping mail to large cities since 1943.

A ZIP code would make it possible to group mail at a level smaller than state and target the specific local post office that would deliver the items. It would also allow computerization of the sorting process. It would make delivering the mail much easier. The problem, however, was getting people to use it.

Telephone company executives who had been through the long process of implementing long-distance direct dialing “warned Day that they had experienced difficulty getting people to use area codes for telephone numbers”

Enter Mr. ZIP

Happy cartoon postman Mr. ZIP.
Getty Images

Inspired by the successful adoption of postal codes in West Germany, Day saw that what was needed was a publicity campaign — a hook that got the message out.

“When Day unveiled the nationwide 5-digit ZIP Code at a postmasters’ convention in October of 1962, he simultaneously introduced the world to ‘Mr. ZIP.’”

Mr. ZIP, a happy cartoon postman who conveyed speedy accuracy with a smiling face, took his place on posters, buttons, decals, radio TV, and in classrooms around the country. He was also featured in a musical film by the Swingin’ Six where the boy gets the girl because he used a ZIP Code and his letter got to her in time.

Letter perfect

The addition of the ZIP Code to the mailing address made another change necessary. Because it added 5 characters, and addressing systems that businesses used generally only allowed a maximum set number of characters in each line, the Postal Service approved a set of codes that identified states using only 2 letters.

N. Mex. became NM, Oreg. became OR, Conn. became CT. There were some complaints about letter choiced, but the only one to change after 1963 was Nebraska. Nebr. had originally been assigned NB, which was deemed too suggestive of New Brunswick, Canada, and in 1969 it was changed to NE.

Nebraska had originally been assigned NB, which was deemed too suggestive of New Brunswick, Canada. In 1969, it was changed to NE.

Thanks to Mr. ZIP and the publicity campaign, the ZIP Code caught on, and by 1983 there was “almost 100% ZIP Code compliance.” It took a bit longer for people to get used to the new state abbreviations, but with the ZIP Code doing most of the location work, there was room for variation in how people wrote the state.

The ZIP Code numbers were available for anyone to use to organize information by location, and they became an important part of data tracking for the census, public utilities, health organizations, insurance, and marketing, just to name a few of the areas where it has proven useful.

Though there are now other ways to track data and other ways to send messages that don’t involve the Postal Service, “the ZIP Code is revealed to be a public good that has far surpassed its original intent.”

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