The old ones say he came riding into town sometime around 1963 … a new sheriff whose lanky, pop-eyed, milquetoastish facade masked bold new expectations.
Mr. ZIP’s bosses at the U.S. Postal Service were not the besieged, belt-tightening bureaucrats we know today.
No, back then the USPS was an indispensable link that held together billions of interpersonal connections.
Those were the days when a long-distance phone call cost serious money — and remember what we used to do to avoid making them? We used to signal relatives that we’d arrived home by calling them, letting the phone ring twice, and then hanging up. Or we’d call them collect using an agreed-upon pseudonym that signified safe arrival.
(My mom’s folks used to use “Evelyn Keyes” as their collect-call code name. We never actually accepted a call from Ms. Keyes. I hope she was not offended.)
Yes, as far as affordable long-distance communication went, the game was being played with the Postal Service’s ball.
When they raised rates, people went along. What choice did they have? Were they gonna get out their home computers and chat with Aunt Minnie in real time? Share pictures of their wedding on Facebook? Nuh-uh.
And when the Postal Service decided everyone in America needed to add five numbers to the ends of the addresses that had served them just fine, people like my grandfather did their best to go along with that too.
Even if they needed a nudge in the form of a written reminder:
You’ll notice a four-year difference between Mr. ZIP’s arrival and my grandfather’s calendar note. My understanding, based on Web research, is that the USPS introduced five-digit ZIP codes in July 1963 but did not make them fully required on all pieces of mail until early 1967.
My grandpa’s note suggests he waited to start using it until he was absolutely required to do so. If he needed to make a note of it to remind himself in 1967, clearly he hadn’t been using it much before that.
I am guessing my grandpa held off on embracing the ZIP code until the last minute because he’d never needed it.
He lived three or four blocks from a post office, and a simple “1107 Hope Street, Springdale, Conn.,” had always sufficed to get his mail to him. (Springdale, for the uninitiated, is the neighborhood within the city of Stamford that roughly coincides — then and now — with the boundaries of the 06907 ZIP code.)
And what born-and-bred New Englander would use an extra adornment as long as the mail got through without it? It would be unnecessary, like dressing in your Sunday suit to go plant the peppers.
I have never personally taken to the more recent ZIP+Four codes because, well, the mail gets there fine with only five digits. I used to think I was being lazy. Now, I think of it as maintaining a family tradition. Blumenaus don’t waste ink or effort when they don’t have to.
The average American of the Sixties got plenty of reminders that their mail was never fully dressed without a ZIP code.
There was the indefatigable Mr. ZIP, for one thing, who showed up in promotional ads and even on the wasted space inside stamp books. (He is still trotted out on a limited basis by the Postal Service, which says on its website that he has no first name.)
Americans glued to the TV set in 1963-64 could hear Ethel Merman holding forth, with typical brassiness, about the new service. Or, they might see a PSA that explained what each number of the five-digit codes represented.
And the most popular comic strip of the day, “Peanuts,” got into the act with the introduction of three of its most curious characters — 5 95472 and his sisters 3 and 4.
5 explained to a bemused Charlie Brown that his father had renamed the family as a way of capitulating to the rising tide of numbers in society. The family’s new last name — we never learned their old one — was explained as a nod to their ZIP code. It was one of the very few hints in the strip’s 50-year run as to where the Peanuts gang might have lived in the real world. (95472 is the ZIP code for Sebastopol, Calif., where Charles Schulz lived at the time.)
The notion that someone would have to ask their postman or call the Post Office to find out their ZIP code seems quaint, now that the five-digit codes are entrenched in daily life.
My generation grew up hearing a ZIP code sung every day at the end of one of the great PBS shows of all time, “ZOOM.” (Today, there exists a Facebook group with the name “I will always know the zipcode for Boston because I watched ZOOM.” It’s actually the ZIP code for Allston, Boston’s student-ghetto neighborhood, but that’s neither heayah nor theyah.)
A ZIP code also featured in the title of one of the most popular TV shows of my high-school years. That particular ZIP code became a stand-in for the full name of the show, as most kids dropped the “Beverly Hills” and simply referred to the show as “90210” — ZIP code as aural marketing hook.
What seems unfamiliar is the notion of the U.S. Postal Service driving Americans’ interpersonal communication. Today’s USPS is struggling just to survive. If it tried to add another layer of code to Americans’ mailing addresses, the dust from the ensuing customer stampede would blot out the sun.
As marketing campaigns go, though, the one that gave us the ZIP code worked nicely. By the end of the ’60s, most Americans bought the notion that five extra digits at the end of every address would make the mail move faster.
Even my grandpa, after a few reminders.
FYI: The illustrations reproduced here are taken from a 1964 U.S. Postal Service promotional piece. I have used them here on the grounds that government-produced materials are generally in the public domain, since We The People paid for them. I acknowledge that the source material was made available by the USPS.