Fine tuning ZIP Code and the retirement of Mr. Zip
High levels of public cooperation with ZIP Code were acknowledged as early as 1969, when the Annual Report of the Postmaster General stated that the Post Office Department would be turning its attention to fine tuning the ZIP Code numbering system, as well as to the installation of new types of mail processing machines. Finally, the report explained, “the distribution of outgoing mail has been converted entirely from an alphabetic to a ZIP Code arrangement, and in many offices, to a combination of both.” The report also mentions the use of high-speed mail processing machines that sorted mail and packages according to ZIP Code, as well as a manually operated ZIP Code keyboard.(1)
As compliance with ZIP Code neared 100 percent in the 1970’s, the United States Postal Service (successor of the United States Post Office Department),(2) cut back on its promotion campaign. Mr. Zip’s image disappeared from the margins of most postage stamps, while the slogan that used to accompany him, “use correct ZIP Code,” remained.(3) In 1983, with the creation of the new ZIP + 4 zoning system, Mr. Zip was partially retired by the United States Postal Service (USPS). He was no longer needed to promote the five-digit ZIP Code, and USPS saw no need to launch a similar promotional campaign to promote ZIP + 4. The idea behind the new zoning code system was that the extra four digits added to the end of the five-digit ZIP would allow machines to take mail sorting one step further–down to identifying a specific carrier route and block. This would eliminate the need for manual letter sorting and decrease the need for more postal employees.(4) The ZIP + 4 system is used today, though almost exclusively by large volume mailers. Independent mailers tend to stick to the five digit codes.
As ZIP Code use became widespread, the codes took on new meaning for the government as well as businesses. Today, ZIP Codes are used to gather demographic statistics based on census data, and asking for a person’s code in the check out line allows companies to determine where customers are coming from and where new stores or offices should be built. ZIP Codes also enable companies to send advertising mail to households all across the country.
Though Mr. Zip’s star performance ended in time for his 20th anniversary in 1983, USPS has indicated that he might be returning to the realm of postal advertising in the future. The manager of USPS Licensing noted in 2003 that the American public should expect to see Mr. Zip in “some unexpected places.”(5) His presence might never be as widespread as it was in the height of his career in the 1960’s, but Americans should keep an eye out for Mr. Zip.
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1) Winton M. Blount, 1969 Annual Report of the Postmaster General of the United States (United States Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1969), 13.
2) In 1971, Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act, which eliminated the United States Post Office Department as a Cabinet department. The Post Office Department was replaced by the independent United States Postal Service.
3) Les Winick, “Postal Service’s Mr. Zip has been so effective that he’s out of a job,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1986, I27, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
4) Postal Record, February, 1980, 41.
5) USPS press release, July 1, 2003, Files of the historian of the USPS.