Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 7, 2023


Every week, I look forward to reading The Marion County Record - the paper from my home county. I particularly enjoy the "Memories" section that has a compilation of articles published in the paper as long ago as 1878 and as recently as 2008. The latest edition had the following item from June 20, 1963 - 60 years ago:

The five-digit ZIP code number for Marion is 66861, Postmaster Paul Shahan announced today. "Everyone will use this ZIP code on all their correspondence to speed mail deliveries and reduce the chance of mis-sent mail," he said.

I wasn't quite 10 when the use of ZIP codes went into effect, so I don't remember when they were introduced, but husband Art does. From 1933 through 1947, his grandfather Charles was the mail messenger in Appleton, Wisconsin, transporting the mail between the post office and the trains that carried it across the country. Art's father Tom then took over the contract in 1948 and, by 1963, Art was working for him as a way to make money for college. He saw, first-hand, how important ZIP codes were in the sorting process, as his post office frequently received materials meant for Appleton, Minnesota.

Friend Bryce also recalls when the codes first came out.

... they seemed unnecessary for sending letters to friends or relatives in Kansas. ... I think the clerk at the post office window in Marquette (my grandmother at times, and my best friend's mother at times) had a big book to search for ZIP codes. ...

I wrote letters to an aunt and uncle in Gardena, California, and they used ZIP codes right away and I think I felt a little important writing to someone so far away that I needed to use one. However, it was in June 1965 when I first started using them seriously. My oldest brother went off to study at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Now I had to know three ZIP codes - one for family members at each end of the country and one for Marquette, Kansas. ...

ZIP stands for Zone Improvement Plan, and it was introduced July 1, 1963, by the Post Office Department as part of a larger Nationwide Improved Mail Service (NIMS) project to improve mail delivery. Before NIMS, letters went through about 17 sorting stops, mostly done by hand. The new system was less time-consuming and used more automated systems.

The first digit of the code identifies one of 10 large areas of the nation, and the second digit indicates a state, a geographic portion of a heavily-populated state, or two or more less-populated states. The third digit identifies a major destination area within a state, which may be a large city post office or a major mail concentration point (Sectional Center) in a less populated area. The final two digits indicate either a postal delivery unit of a larger city post office, or an individual post office served from a Sectional Center. Some entities have such a large volume of mail they have their own ZIP codes.

Art said, "The Aid Association for Lutherans - now part of Thrivent - was a huge national operation headquartered in Appleton. It never struck me just how big they were until I noticed in the mail sorting room - all done by hand then - it had its own unique five-digit ZIP code."

Top-left: first digit of ZIP code selects a group of states; bottom-left: second ZIP digit, sometimes with help from the third, selects a particular state. Some states have several second and third digit designations. Top-right: all of the Kansas codes are shown. The 665xx have been colored bright red. Note that there is little pattern to the assignment. Bottom-right: Our home ZIP code - 66503 - is shown in red.

To promote the use of the codes, government agencies and large bulk mailers were targeted first. Acceptance was a bit slower among individuals, but the Post Office came up with ideas to entice people to use them. One effort revolved around Christmas, telling children Santa's ZIP code was 99701. Another involved Broadway legend Ethel Merman. She was recruited to sing a jingle about ZIP codes. The tune? "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" - what else?

Welcome to ZIP code,
Learn it today.
Send your mail out the five-digit way.
For a time-saver to lighten the load,
Your return address should have the ZIP code.

Another part of the effort involved the introduction of "Mr. ZIP." According to the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum, Mr. ZIP debuted January 10, 1964. The five-cent Sam Houston commemorative stamp was issued with Mr. ZIP's image on the margin. He quickly became an icon for the nation's postal system. Art said there were placards with Mr. ZIP's image inside and outside the Appleton post office.

"The whole effort was very upbeat as there was no way to force people to use it. The emphasis was on how mail would be delivered more quickly and reliably," he said.

While the promotions were very successful, five digits could only divide the country into 100,000 areas - about one for every 40 square miles. So in 1983, ZIP+4 was introduced. But many countries today still use a five-digit code. The British system, introduced in 1959, uses a combination of letters and numbers. On average, only 15 recipients in Britain have the same code.

Having accomplished the task of convincing us to use the code, the U.S. Postal Service retired Mr. ZIP in 1986. But his iconic status means his image occasionally appears on coffee mugs, T-shirts and other items to this day.

Although many of us now conduct business and contact family and friends online using a computer or a smart phone, I still like to send and receive letters through the mail. And when I do, including the ZIP code is second nature. Bryce feels the same way:

... Today I'll probably text family and friends all over the USA and in Sweden, Argentina, Rwanda and Guam without using a ZIP code or having to remember an area code already programmed into my phone. But on my list for this morning is a trip to the post office to buy the new Roy Lichtenstein stamps and to see what other interesting stamps are for sale. I still love snail mail, ZIP codes and all.

Top-left: comic-book character Dick Tracy even got into the act promoting Mr. ZIP, who is shown on Tracy's famous two-way TV watch. Top-right: a Mrs. Zip figure was found in a New York post office. Was Mr. Zip married? Bottom: by the end of the century, ZIP codes were so much a part of our culture that the title for a television show set in Beverly Hills, California was only one of the city's codes.

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