Someone whom I’ve known since elementary school celebrated his fiftieth birthday this week. On July 1, Mr. ZIP reached the half-century mark. His invention brought efficiency changes to the U.S. Postal System, and altered the addresses of Chattanooga area mail.
Mr. ZIP, a bug-eyed, uniformed postal carrier, was a cartoon figure used in promoting the 1963 implementation of ZIP Codes. Mr. ZIP appeared in public service announcements on television channels and in newspapers. At the end of ZIP commercials, a voiceover announcer said, “Mail moves the country. ZIP Codes move the mail.”
Mail had been moving to and from the Chattanooga area for some time. According to an April 14, 1962 “Looking Backward” column of the Chattanooga Times, we had mail service dating back to an initial route between the two Tennessee towns of Washington and Jasper. Along the way, the mail wagon stopped at Smith’s Crossroads (later called Dayton), Sale Creek, Soddy, Dallas, Smithfield, and Oakes Landing before reaching Ross’ Landing.
In 1943, the United States Post Office Department introduced two-digit postal zone codes to be used in routing mail in large cities. Chattanooga had its own set of zone codes. I grew up in St. Elmo, which was zone 9. The proper way to write my address was “Chattanooga 9, Tenn.”
With a growing volume of mail to be sorted, a more precise coding system was needed. Enter the 5-digit ZIP codes, part of the Zone Improvement Plan. “ZIP” should always be capitalized, for it is an acronym of that plan.
In a 1963 Chattanooga Times article, Local Postmaster O. Milligan announced that Chattanooga would be assigned a ZIP prefix of 374. The left-most digit of the ZIP Code corresponded to one of ten national service areas. Each digit further subdivided the area, so that mail could be routed efficiently. The prefix would be followed by the existing zone code. So, St. Elmo became 37409.
At the same time, state abbreviations were standardized into the two-character format still used today. So, “Tenn.” changed to “TN” in the new convention.
The July 1, 1963 Chattanooga Times reported, “U.S. Mails Begin ZIP Code System.” That same day, the Post Office Department ranked higher than anyone in generating mail. There were seventy-two million notification cards mailed to the public with instructions on the ZIP for their area, how to use the new code system, and benefits of speedier mail delivery. The Zone Improvement Plan was coupled with a large investment in electronic mail sorting equipment.
Under the new program, Chattanooga’s postal workers excelled. The December 24, 1965 Times reported that the local service had placed second in an efficiency contest within the three-state region of TN, MS, and AL. Mr. ZIP must have been smiling at the news.
To provide help to those struggling to find the correct ZIP Codes for their mail, the Post Office provided “ZIP-a-List” cards in a mass mailing to the public. The October, 18, 1966 Chattanooga News-Free Press reported that an average six hundred ZIP-a-List cards a day were being processed by the mail workers. A person filled out and mailed a card with an address for which he or she needed a ZIP Code. The Post Office Department returned the card with the correct ZIP Code. Local Postmaster Frank Moore said that a special phone number for ZIP Code information had been set up at the post office.
ZIP Codes were not universally accepted when introduced. According to one of my relatives, some of the neighbors felt that ZIP Codes, along with new 7-digit phone numbers, were a Communist plot. However, ZIP Codes eventually became a familiar step in mailing everything. For precise routing of mail, the original 5-digit ZIP Code has grown to 9 or, in some types of mailings, 12 digits. ZIP Codes are often used in market research to group data by region.
Recently, I was purchasing stamps at an automated kiosk at the post office. I noticed that Mr. ZIP has made a return appearance. His image was one of the choices that I had for the type of stamps to print on demand. Of course, I walked away with a couple of books of computer-printed Mr. ZIP stamps. Good to see that my old friend has changed with the times.
If you have memories of the introduction of ZIP Codes, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sorry, Mr. ZIP – e-mail is just quicker for some things.
1960 advertisement showing the zone code form of an address. The ZIP Code for this business was 37409.