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Given the ongoing political debate over postal efficiency, it’s easy to forget one of the biggest drivers of Big Data today is a postal innovation. The ZIP code makes it possible for marketers to guess how much you’ll charge on a credit card each month or how likely you are to watch college football. This level of precision would not be possible without the U.S. Postal Service and a character called Mr. ZIP.

In the mid-20th century, what was then known as the Post Office Department had a problem: too much mail. Mail volume expanded by nearly 160 percent between 1940 and 1965. Sorting the mail was a manual, laborious process, with eight to 10 postal employees handling each piece. Something had to give.

The answer was automation

In 1943, large cities were divided into two-digit codes, but use of these “local zone numbers” was limited. In 1944, Philadelphia Postal Inspector Robert Moon proposed a national three-digit code system tied to processing hubs.

It took quite some time for Moon’s idea to gain traction. It was not until 1963 that Postmaster General Edward Day launched the modern five-digit ZIP code, combining local zone numbers with Moon’s proposal. “ZIP” stood for “Zone Improvement Plan.” It took nearly another 20 years for the post office to use optical character reader, or OCR, technology to sort the mail.

ZIP codes are ubiquitous today, but it took a concerted PR push from the postal service to convert Americans to their use. The wiry Mr. ZIP—along with Ethel Merman and a hip singing group called the “Swingin’ Six”—sold the nation on the virtues of ZIP codes. By the time Mr. ZIP retired in 1983, ZIP code use was nearly at 100 percent, and the five-digit system had expanded to the nine-digit ZIP+4, setting the stage for further automation.

Photo: Brenda Rocha / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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