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AN ENGLISH ROSE IN GEORGIA –

By Lesley Francis

ZIP CODES 

We received a Christmas card from an old friend with an extremely short return address which caught my eye. It was simply a street and house number and a zip code such as“11258, Ford Ave, 31324”. We are all so conditioned to see full addresses – full name, house number and street name, city, state and zip code – that despite working perfectly well for delivery purposes, it looked odd. It got me thinking about zip codes. 

The concept of postal zoning in the US, or the idea of assigning numbers to certain geographic regions, goes back to World War II. The volume of mail that the United States Post Office handled was increasing dramatically during the early 1940s. This unfortunately corresponded to experienced staff members going into the armed services, so inexperienced mail clerks were filling the growing number of positions. The idea of using a two-digit numerical postal zone system in the country’s largest cities was established and was well accepted and used throughout the rest of the 1940s and 1950s. 

However, during those decades the amount of mail doubled, and in 1962 James Edward Day, the Postmaster General of the United States, introduced a new system using what he called Zone Improvement Planning Codes, and the 5-digit ‘Zip Code’ was born.   

The first digit designates a broad region of the USA, and the next two focus down to a particular city or area. There is usually a US Post Office Sectional Center Facility assigned to those first three digits. Finally, the last two digits describe a more precise area. The numbers generally start lower in New England and get higher the further west one goes. The highest Zip Code is 99950 for Ketchikan, Alaska. 

There was a big concern at the time of zip code introduction that public acceptance would not be good, so in 1963 the USPO launched an extensive advertising campaign featuring a friendly, speedy-looking cartoon character named Mr. Zip. This was before I was born but my husband assures me that while Pop Eye the Sailor encouraged kids to eat spinach, and Smokey the Bear asked you to avoid forest fires, everything about Mr. Zip was aimed at selling the idea that use of the new Zone Improvement Planning Codes would make mail delivery faster, better, cheaper and improved in every way. In 1967, following a better-than-expected acceptance of the new system, zip codes became mandatory for all bulk mail. 

When I moved to Coastal Georgia 15 years ago, it took me a while to get used to the American zip codes. In the UK, the current system was introduced between 1959 and 1974 by the Royal Mail, although regional and early versions of postcodes have been used since Victorian times. British postcodes consist of two main elements – the outward code needed to sort one town to another, and the inward code needed to sort mail within the town. For example, the postcode M7 9AH can be explained as follows. M stands for Manchester in the north of England (from where my family originates) which is divided into 48 zones, this one is the 7th of these zones. The second part of the postcode relates to sector 9 in the 7th zone, narrowing it down to approximately 300 addresses. The AH relates to the smallest geographic area unit so about 15 addresses will have the exact same postal code in the land of my birth. In London, where I lived before emigrating here, postcodes are more complicated because of the city’s size and the fact that nearly 10 million people live there, which is approximately 15% of the British population. This is handled by indicating the geographical direction within London: E is for eastern parts of London, SW is for south-western parts of London, N for northern parts of London, etc. In case you are wondering L is used for Liverpool in the Northwest of England 200 miles away from London.    

Back to this side of the pond, zip codes are used to gather statistics, set legislative districts, obtain insurance data, for credit card security and a lot of other uses. Zip codes are so completely woven into the fabric of American society that some zip codes have become well known cultural or even status symbols, e.g. 90210 (Beverley Hills), 60606 (Chicago), 10118 (The Empire State Building) and 20500 (The White House). There are only three “people” with their own personal zip codes: The President of the United States (20500-0001), the First Lady (20500-0002) and Smokey The Bear, who received so much mail in the 1950s and 60s that he was assigned 20252. Unfortunately, Santa Claus does NOT have his own zip code, but letters addressed to him are usually routed to the town of North Pole, Alaska 99705. There is a lot more information at www.britannica.com.  

I say goodbye this week with a quote from the great American comedian Martin Mull, joking about the rural setting he was raised in: “The town where I grew up has a zip code of E-I-E-I-O”. 

God Bless America. 

– ENDS – 

Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com  or via her full-service marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.