In 1986, one of history’s hardest-working postmen slipped quietly into retirement—but not before leaving his mark on every card, letter, and package most of us have ever mailed.
We now take ZIP Codes for granted, but when the Zone Improvement Plan began in July 1963, post officials foresaw that few Americans would be excited about memorizing five-digit codes for their own addresses, let alone codes for all of their family and friends. Enter Mr. ZIP, who began appearing in the media in late 1962 and started popping up on the selvage of stamp sheets in 1964. His job was to promote ZIP Codes—and to make using them second nature for generations to come.
Some aspects of the campaign, like this video from the mid-1960s, were all business, promising “space-age speed” if you remembered to include a ZIP Code on your letters. Other attempts at public outreach, like fourteen minutes of songs by “The Swingin’ Six,” are reminders of a far different age in American taste. Even so, Mr. ZIP abounds in these videos, just as he appeared on buttons and signs, in magazines, on the sides of trucks, and in other prominent places across the culture. Half a century later, he may well be one of the most successful ad icons of all time: USPS historians note that by 1967, 80 percent of Americans recognized Mr. ZIP and knew what he stood for.
Throughout 2013, we’ll celebrate 50 successful years of the ZIP Code system with the return of the smiling chap who taught America how to keep the mail on track. Mr. ZIP has his own web site at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, and he’s already appeared this year on the backs of the Grand Central Terminal and Arlington Green Bridge stamp sheets. In the months ahead, keep an eye out for him—and marvel at how a simple doodle convinced the public to participate in one of the biggest mail-delivery revolutions in U.S. history.