Boomers Were Reminded to “Mail Early”

It’s that time of year once again, when the U.S. Post Office reminds us to “mail early” in order to get cards, letters and packages to their destination before Christmas. December is certainly their busiest month, but today’s volume of mailed cards can’t compare with the volumes that were sent in the boomer years. The mailing of holiday cards has steadily decreased over the past couple of decades, directly corresponding to the rise of the Internet, e-mail and the cell phone.

Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1875 that the first cards were printed in the U.S. They became so popular that the original publisher, a German immigrant lithographer named Louis Prang, couldn’t compete with the slew of printers jumping on the bandwagon. With the introduction of the Christmas postcard a few years later, the card and envelope greeting was close to extinction. The shift was caused by the combination of the convenience and cheap cost of postcards coupled with mailing set at a penny. By the 1920s, however, the more “formal” greeting of a card placed inside an envelope reclaimed its dominant position.

When the Boomer Generation began, the War had ended and people were ready to celebrate the holiday season in a jovial atmosphere. Humor and cartoons became prevalent in card designs, as echoed in the advertising of the day. Throughout the 1960s, cards pictured nostalgic, sentimental and religious imagery. By the time the last boomers were born in 1964, the sending of Christmas cards had peaked.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first elected post-war president, was the first to issue an official White House Christmas card, in 1953. Other presidents had sent out greeting cards, but it took Eisenhower to elevate the practice to an official category. Eisenhower’s first card was all-white in a horizontal format, sporting a red strip along the bottom, and made by Hallmark. The front contained an embossed Great Seal of President of the United States, sans additional ink, and a gold, Old English-lettered “Season’s Greetings” below the Seal. Inside, the printed sentiment read, “The President and Mrs. Eisenhower extend their best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” It’s hard to say whether that had an effect on the nation in terms of mailing cards, but expanding the practice to official state status does reflect the zeitgeist of the day in the “anything is possible” optimism of the 1950s.

Thanks to TV during during the Boomer era, we could see how our First Families were celebrating the holidays.

Mister Boomer recalls the tradition of sending holiday cards in his family. First, there was the making of the list. This could cause conflict as people were added and dropped, often based on whether they had sent a card the previous year. Next was the purchase of the cards, which in Mister B’s family meant boxes of cards from a discount store. Once stamps were procured — a function Mister B’s mom would execute since the Post Office was a short walk away — came the annual discussion over who would write the cards. Inevitably, there were some that each wanted the other to handle, whether due to familial or work relationships. Us kids would help, sitting around the dining room table, addressing envelopes using the family address book, and licking the stamps to attach to each envelope.

What was of much more interest to Mister B were the cards that arrived at the house. Most boomer households displayed the cards they received, but the manner varied. While some who had fireplaces may have placed them on the mantel, others hung the cards over a string, either festooned across a wall, attached to ceiling molding or another architectural feature of their living or dining rooms. Others still, like Mister B’s mother, Scotch-taped them, first to the back of the front door, then on the paneled wall that separated the living room from the kitchen as the collection grew with each day’s mail delivery. Some years his mom would cover the back of the door in aluminum foil before taping the cards to it. The shiny silver lent a festive sheen to the ceremonious display.

Despite the continuing drop in mail volume, an estimated 1.6 billion holiday cards will be sent this year. Plus an additional 500 million holiday cards will be sent via electronic means. As the number of mailed cards falls, the number of e-cards has risen. Meanwhile, many have given up the practice altogether. What are the reasons most people give for stopping their tradition of sending holiday cards?

  • They are too busy to devote the necessary time.
  • The cost of the cards plus the postage has become prohibitive.
  • People have become much more casual. It’s much easier to call, e-mail or send an e-card to wish someone a happy season.
  • We are no longer a society dependent on handwritten notes.

The practice of sending cards is another tradition that we as boomers have seen change in our lifetimes, and it continues to change. Will we live long enough to see a day when mailing a holiday card is as old-fashioned as taking a horse and buggy ride?

What memories of holiday cards do you have, boomers?

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?