Our blog might be named PopIcon, but a deep dive into the Smithsonian National Postal Museum reveals the original “Pop Icon” was a government brand mascot known as Mr. Zip.
Let’s go back in time to the year 1963. This is when the ZIP code first made its introduction. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Post Office Department began using the Mr. Zip character to encourage ZIP code use.
Do You Know What “ZIP” Code Stands For?
Not too long ago, postal customers didn’t include a zip code as part of their mailing address.
On July 1, 1963, the ZIP code — which stands for Zone Improvement Plan — was introduced by the U.S. Post Office Department. The customer base for mail was growing all the time. Introducing zip codes was part of a larger Postal Service Nationwide Improved Mail (NIMS) plan designed to speed up mail delivery.
Meet Mr. Zip
While many online resources often cite Mr. Zip as being created in 1963, the United States Postal Service (USPS) said Mr. Zip was actually created and designed a few years earlier.
Harold Wilcox, the son of a letter carrier and a member of the Cunningham and Walsh advertising agency, is credited with designing what would later be known as Mr. Zip. The character design was of a postman delivering a letter. He was used a few times by Chase Manhattan Bank in a bank-by-mail ad campaign and filed away.
According to USPS, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company acquired the design from Cunningham and Walsh. This character was made available to the U.S. Post Office Department. It underwent a few design refreshes with the most notable including sharpened limbs and torso, an added mail bag, and a name: Mr. Zip. (Incidentally, Mr. Zip does not have a first name.)
In October 1962, Mr. Zip made his debut at a convention of postmasters. Once the zip code received an introduction in 1963, a Mr. Zip campaign was created by the U.S. Post Office Department to increase public awareness of the zip code and encourage postal customers to use the zip code.
The Enduring Legacy of Mr. Zip
Even though many postal customers were initially resistant to embrace the zip code, Mr. Zip quickly won them over. Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Zip could be seen in print advertisements, public service announcements, and even comic strips. He was equally just as visible in the mailroom. The character appeared in post offices, on the sides of mail delivery trucks, and on postal uniforms. Mr. Zip’s messaging encouraged postal customers to use zip codes, then containing just five little digits, for better mailing.
It worked. Just four years after his introduction, eight out of 10 Americans knew who Mr. Zip was and what he stood for. The US Post Office Department was even once quoted saying they expected Mr. Zip to become as familiar a figure as Smokey Bear.
The nine-digit zip code was introduced in 1983. Mr. Zip entered a partial retirement and gradually phased out once zip codes were accepted by most American postal customers. He briefly came out of retirement in 2013 when the zip code system celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Today, the USPS “zips” around nearly 42,000 zip codes across the United States. While Mr. Zip is not quite as visible as he used to be, it’s because of this character we know mail moves the country and zip codes move the mail.