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.
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?