While flirting with his “birthday wish” girlfriend, Newman jokes that the secret of ZIP codes is that they are actually meaningless. Is this true? What are ZIP codes, and why do we have them? Why do we need them? And why do they make them so small?
The first postal codes were developed during World War II as a sorting mechanism to help an understaffed Postal Service more efficiently deliver mail. With many postal employees overseas fighting the war, the system was implemented to help inexperienced or newly trained employees. Originally, these codes were only made for the largest cities and states, and just had 2 numbers: one signifying the state and one signifying the city,
After the war, and with an expanding population, the postal code was expanded to 5 numbers in 1963, and officially designated as the ZIP code. Since the mail never stops, a more efficient sorting method was necessary to keep up with mail demand. The first digit was created to signify a broad regional zone. The next 2 numbers represented a large regional post office, and the last 2 numbers were designated for a small post office within that region to service the community. Using this postal code, mail sorters could more easily sift through the mail and make sure that each letter ends up at the address it is destined for in an efficient and speedy manner.
Some of you may have also noticed 4 additional digits tacked on after a hyphen to the traditional 5 digit zip code. This is known as ZIP+4, and was designed to further specify mailing location. It never quite caught on though, as mail sorting technologies made it somewhat unnecessary.
So who do we have to thank for ZIP codes? While the 2-digit number was put in place during World War II, the 3 additional numbers come from Robert Moon, a Philadelphia postal inspector, who developed the idea in 1944. After years of hard work, Moon’s coding system finally got traction with Post Master General
Henry Atkins Edward Day. An alliance was then formed between Moon’s 3-numbered code and the The Post Office’s 2-digit code to create the 5 digit ZIP code we know today (as we outlined above).
While ZIP codes received moderately favorable views at it’s inception, approval ratings soared to 90% by the late 60’s, thanks in part to the agency’s mascot Mr. ZIP. (Yes, this is real. Yes, there is an infomercial. Yes, you can watch it here on Youtube.)
The ZIP code has also served as a tremendous cost-saver for the Post Office. Estimates place the financial value of the ZIP code as saving the Post Office over 16 billion dollars in the first year 10 years of existence, and saving over 70 billion dollars more for other government agencies, businesses, and consumers.
Needless to say, Newman is just wrong when he says that ZIP codes are meaningless. Not only do they help the Post Office crack that unheard of 50% successful delivery marker by leaps and bounds, but it is also a cost saving measure that has saved the postal service and American citizenry billions of dollars since it’s creation more than 50 years ago.
For more information on the history of the ZIP code, we hope you’ll check out this 2013 report by USPS Inspector General.