The Post Office, It Is a’Changin’

The U.S. Postal Service has been in the news lately. It is deep in debt and as the world of communications expands, the need for its services has greatly changed since we were boomer youngsters. The Postal Service holds a special place in the hearts of boomers. We grew up listening to tunes that chronicled delivery service: from Please Mr. Postman to Return to Sender; I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter to The Letter. Mail was one of those “givens” for us, like television and the telephone. Now Congress must consider methods of scaling back the once mighty monopoly to suit 21st Century needs.

There were two historical events that happened to the U.S. Post Office during the boomer years, to which many of us haven’t given a second thought. One occurred on President Richard Nixon’s watch in 1971, when the Post Office became an independent agency. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson had established a cabinet post for the Post Office Department (as it was then called) and asked the then current postmaster general, William T. Barry, to take the take the cabinet post. He was later replaced by Amos Kendall, who became an advisor and speechwriter to the president in addition to his postmaster duties. President Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act on August 12, 1970. As an independent agency, the Post Office Department then became the Postal Service, and the Cabinet post was eliminated when the law went into effect on July 1, 1971.

The second, and perhaps the best-known element of Post Office history to boomers, was the introduction of ZIP Codes. The Post Office had issued zone numbers to cities since 1943. (Note Elvis singing, “…no such number, no such zone,” in his famous rendition of Return to Sender.) By the early 1960’s however, a new system was needed to take full advantage of the latest high-speed optical readers. In order to sort mail quicker and more efficiently to serve the expanding amount of mail produced by a growing population (that means us, boomers), human intervention had to be minimized. The system that was developed consisted of a grouping of five numbers that gave an indication of the state, county and town or city in its numerals. It was called ZIP Codes, with ZIP being an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.

Once ZIP Codes had been firmly established, the Post Office began building a series of sectional centers where mail could be pre-sorted, relieving municipalities of the burden of sorting large quantities of letters. The optical readers printed a bar code that broke down the code further, with each sorting step ultimately bringing the letter to the closest Post Office to complete the delivery.

By 1963, bulk mailers were using Zip Codes at a near 100% level. After all, the Post Office could require them to do so for delivery. Residential customers were another story. They weren’t adopting the new system fast enough. Some surmise it was an undercurrent backlash over the perceived depersonalization that had begun as machinery took over many traditionally human jobs: “I am not a number, I am a free man,” as Patrick McGoohan’s character proclaimed in The Prisoner. As a response, the Post Office introduced Mr. ZIP in commercials and posters on July 1, 1963 as a friendly reminder for people to add the codes to their letters and packages. People took to the Mr. ZIP character right away, and the rest is boomer history. The use of Mr. ZIP was retired in 1986.

Sign with "Mr. ZIP" on a hotel letter drop. Note the sign is dated May 1963, presumably the printing date, which is just two months before the introduction of the character. Photo is in the public domain as a work of the U.S. Federal Government.

 

Mister Boomer recalls seeing the character inside the Post Office when he visited with his mother. It was also ubiquitously present on the cancellation mark over stamps for several years. As a youngster, he didn’t give it much thought. The ZIP Code system happened right around the time his family got their new, all-digit phone number. Now, as an adult student of 60s culture, Mister B marvels at the simplicity of the drawing, with its thick black lines and slightly off-kilter geometric forms. In the beginning, Mr. ZIP was just a head. Quickly, the Post Office added a body. The shape was thin and rectangular, often drawn showing the character in motion with a carrier bag, as indicated by the “speed lines” boomer kids remember from cartoons.

Mr. ZIP is thought of as one of the most successful advertising promotions of all times. It was the perfect embodiment of the 60s art style that spoke to a generation, making them comfortable with a system they were reluctant to embrace. (Maybe it’s time to revive Mr. ZIP. After all, how many of us are using the ZIP+4 system that was introduced in the 1980s?)

What memories of Mr. ZIP and the U.S. Post Office come to mind for you, boomers?

Boomers and Education Tools: Time for a Clean Slate?

The Labor Day holiday has come and passed, marking the unofficial end of summer; children have returned school for another year. In our day it was pretty common for the dreaded first day of school to be the day after Labor Day. That specter always loomed large over the holiday weekend, prompting boomers to want to extract every last bit of their summer fun before the holiday Monday was over. Today the start date varies by state, and can be as early as the third week of August to the week after Labor Day.

When we examine the experience of kids in school today and compare it to our boomer school days, many striking differences appear. In fact, it’s changed so dramatically in some ways that the stories we might tell our grandchildren would seem quite ancient and primitive to these young students. One simple, yet influential education tool that has changed — or rather, evolved — is the blackboard, or chalkboard as it is more frequently called today.

Many boomers born in the late forties and early fifties, like Mister B, are old enough to remember the blackboard. As its name suggests, it was black, and usually a long rectangle stretching across most of the front wall of a classroom. Sometimes a classroom had an additional blackboard on a side wall. Teachers would write on the boards with sticks of white chalk. The chalk could be erased with a small block of wool felt called the eraser. The process of writing and wiping produced a fair amount of chalk dust circulating in the classroom. Mister B would watch the chalk particles drifting through beams of sunlight emanating from the one wall of windows. Like following water as it journeys down a waterfall, time slowed as the particles, suspended in air, swayed back and forth and meandered, ever so slowly, toward the floor.

The origin of the blackboard is unknown, but the man most credited with its implementation is James Pillans, a Scottish headmaster in the late 1700s. The prevailing teaching tool of the time was “slates,” which were individual hand-held pine boards. Early slates were composed of a board with a shaped handle to grasp. Attached to the board was a translucent animal skin sheet on which the teacher would write the lesson of the day. Later, boards could consist of small sheets of stone or be painted black. A form of chalk was used to write on them. Aside from being a laborious task for a teacher to have to repeat the lesson, writing for each pupil, not every student could afford their own slate. Pillans sought a way to relay his lessons in geography in a way that all students could see in one, unified glance.

Blackboard history in American schools began in 1801. George Barons, an instructor at West Point, used a wall-based blackboard to teach math. Early blackboards were made of slate, which was mined in Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York. By the mid-1800s, the growth of the U.S. population was increasing the size of classrooms across the country. The need for more and larger blackboards became apparent. The advance of the railroads made shipping these boards practical, and by the late 1800s, every school system in the country was using blackboards.

Cloth rags were the initial tool used to wipe chalk from blackboards. In 1863, the wool felt eraser was invented to supplant rags. With that invention, things pretty much stayed the same for the next hundred years.

By the 1960s, new technologies began taking shape. Blackboards were thought to convey a stark atmosphere to classrooms in an era when the education process was being examined. The gap between what was taught in schools, and what was perceived would be needed for the coming modern age, was becoming a topic of concern. Blackboards had, according to some, too much contrast and were too dark for young eyes to best see and comprehend. Due to advances in metal and ceramic technologies, the green board was invented to address the situation. No longer black, a new name was used to differentiate the new boards from their predecessors: chalkboards. Green was chosen as the board color, to be easier on eyes while still providing enough contrast to view the writing. They were made from steel covered with layers of porcelain enamel. Lighter than slate slabs and cheaper to produce, the boards quickly made their way across the country by the mid-60s. These are the chalkboards most boomers will recall from their youth. Indeed, they are the boards used in most classrooms to this day.

Mister B recalls blackboards in the early days, then the green chalkboards replacing them. In both cases, chalk dust and erasers play the biggest role in his memories. Boards would require a thorough cleaning every now and then to remove residual dust that had clouded the surface. First the board was wiped top to bottom with a felt block eraser, then water and a rag was used to remove any remaining chalk dust. When the board dried, it was good as new. Sometimes a teacher would perform the maintenance, but more often than not, she (teachers were almost all women in Mister B’s experience) would enlist the help of students to complete the task at the end of the day or at the beginning of lunch time. To “clean” the erasers, students would walk outside the building and repeatedly clap two erasers together, like beating a rug to get it clean. The process produced an explosion of chalk dust. Kids would turn their heads and cough to keep the dust from their nostrils and throats. Imagine that being allowed today!

Since erasers were an excellent repository for chalk dust, they became a favorite projectile for classroom bullies. These boys would, when a teacher left the room, grab erasers and fling them at their victims. The resulting patch of white dust on the subject’s clothes reflected the pattern of impact. Mister B recalls one particularly ruthless attack where a classroom bully slapped erasers on the sides of the face of one of his favorite targets. No student would dare interfere lest they become the next victim.

In the 1980s, the whiteboard was invented; businesses and offices embraced the technology first. In this system, a white, plastic board is the base to write on with special markers. A special eraser was used to remove the writing from the board. Sensitivities toward allergies and health concerns over airborne particles prompted educators to look at whiteboards as a way to supplement or replace chalkboards. Even though “non-dust” chalk had replaced its earlier incarnation, dust was still created; it was just technically designed to fall faster. Since the new boards, though inexpensive, required special markers and erasers that needed replenishing, whiteboards were not universally employed in classrooms in an era when cutbacks were ordered.

Today, chalkboards are once again evolving with new technologies. Joining the green chalkboard and whiteboard is the smartboard (also known as e-board). These computer-based boards have all the convenience of a wall-based space for writing, yet none of the inconvenience of chalk dust or expensive consumables. In addition, they are completely interactive. Where a boomer student could walk up to a chalkboard and complete a math problem or diagram a sentence, the smartboard allows today’s students to do the same by way of dragging and dropping words or problems, plus the ability to electronically write on the boards.


Is the future already here? Boomers may be around long enough to see the replacement of the chalkboard.

What memories of chalkboards do you recall, boomers?