50 Years Ago, ZIP Codes Revolutionized Mail Service

Audie Cornish talks to Nancy Pope, head curator at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., about the 50th anniversary of the ZIP code. Pope explains the difference the ZIP code made in mail-sorting speed and accuracy, and describes the Postal Service's public-relations campaign to encourage Americans to mail by number.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. Postal Service is in the midst of tough times, with a $16 billion deficit and a steep drop in mail. But 50 years ago, that wasn't the case. On this day in 1963, the Postal Service introduced the zone improvement code, better known as the ZIP code. As we hear in this song to promote the new system, the postal service had more mail than ever before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) You know you gotta have a ZIP code on the envelope, a ZIP code so you won't get sent back home...

CORNISH: Today, the ZIP code is the basis for everything from census counts to voter districts to marketing databases.

Nancy Pope is head curator at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum here in D.C. Welcome to the program, Nancy.

NANCY POPE: Thanks, it's nice to be here.

CORNISH: So, give us some of the history here. What drove the postal service to come up with the ZIP code?

POPE: Well, they definitely needed some sort of way of creating a digital version of where we are located. Because the old, for lack of a better term, analog way, just wasn't working anymore. To say someone was in a certain address in New York City, for instance, didn't help when you had twice as much mail in 1960 as you did in 1943, for instance.

CORNISH: When you say analog, you mean people are hand-sorting it.

(LAUGHTER)

POPE: Yes, exactly.

CORNISH: And so, by digital you mean just having some numbers to help out.

POPE: Well, numbers that they could use in conjunction with machinery. A machine could read numbers in the 1950s, you know, it could input data that was numbers. It could not necessarily read an address. So our address, for instance, 2 Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, you try and type that into a machine you're going to be processing at the slowest rate on history. But if you were to type in 2-0-0-0-2, that letter is going to go through a machine much more quickly.

CORNISH: So just how big a difference did it make for service?

POPE: Well, it was really amazing because you had before people who were hand-sorting. And hand-sorting, even if you're really good at it, you're not going to do more than 60 letters a minute. I mean, that would be topping out as the best sorter on record for the postal service. So most of them were sorting in the 20 and 30 letters per minute but when they had a machine and could use the machine to help move things along, they ended up starting at 1700 letters per minute, which was quite the difference.

CORNISH: Now, the postal service had to come up with this whole like marketing campaign to convince people to use it, right? We have a clip from the "Mr. Zip" campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Mr. Zip. He revolutionized the mail delivery system of the United States with a ZIP code. The heart of the system is a number, a ZIP code number...

CORNISH: So what's the deal with Mr. Zip? I mean, did people really need convincing to use a ZIP code and, if so, I mean, what are the reasons they were reluctant to use it?

POPE: They really did need convincing. AT&T had just been rolling out area codes for people to use. And AT&T told the post office department you're going to need a lot of help because people hate area codes. They hate having to remember three more numbers. So here you had the post office department about to roll out a campaign to ask people to remember five numbers for every address they would send something to.

And it was also at a time when people were having to use their Social Security numbers more often. And so, here you have people who are feeling like they're being turned into numbers. Now we may not be able to imagine what it was like because we kind of have completed that being turned into numbers concept. But in the '60s, it was kind of scary for the American public.

And so, Mr. Zip was a very, very friendly, happy young guy who would lead you into this wonderful future. And he would not lead you into the scary one.

CORNISH: Nancy, do you have a favorite ZIP code?

POPE: Of course, I do. Everyone does. Mine is 97801.

CORNISH: Which is?

POPE: My hometown, Pendleton, Oregon.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's great. Nancy Pope is head curator at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum here in D.C. Nancy Pope, thank you for speaking with us.

POPE: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

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