[Alyson Kuhn] I love Mr. Zip. He is tidy, smiley and energetic. I like to perf him off panes of vintage stamps and then proudly position him on the flaps of envelopes. I still cherish a Mr. Zip good luck charm I bought back in the mid-’90s (see him above) … but I’d never thought about any other “Zippiana.” Now Mr. Zip has his own website, rich in history, photos and yes, ephemera. The site was researched and written by Abby Curtin, a college student who wasn’t even born when Mr. Zip retired in 1983. How’d she do that?
In case you aren’t clear on Mr. Zip’s job description, Curtin’s introduction brings you right up to speed: “In 1963, the United States Post Office Department launched an advertising campaign on a grand scale. The department’s goal was to promote the widespread use of the newly developed Zone Improvement Plan — the ZIP Code system. In order to persuade the reluctant American public to use the new five-digit code at the end of mailing addresses, the Post Office Department introduced Mr. Zip, a friendly looking cartoon character who gave personality to the ZIP Code campaign.”
How did you come to write the Mr. Zip site?
I’m from Ohio, near Cleveland, and I’m in college at John Carroll University in Cleveland. I wanted to spend the summer before my senior year of college in Washington, D.C. I applied for five internships, three of them at museums, and Nancy Pope, curator at the National Postal Museum (NPM), was the first to contact me.
What was the scope of the project?
At first we envisioned a pictorial history of Mr. Zip, showcasing various ways he was used. Interestingly, his appearance didn’t really evolve over his 20 years of “service,” and so the site took on a life of its own. As I was doing my research, I also realized that it’s nearly impossible to discuss Mr. Zip outside of the context of the ZIP Code campaign, so my project evolved into one where I told the story of the entire campaign.
Wasn’t this a huge undertaking, to get everyone who sent mail to start using ZIP Codes — which you couldn’t look up online back then?
Absolutely. In fact, I learned that prior to the 1963 launch of ZIP Codes, one AT&T executive actually warned Postmaster General Day about this, based on AT&T’s own difficulties introducing area codes to the beginning of phone numbers. AT&T had actually acquired the design for Mr. Zip after the Chase Manhattan Bank campaign — and offered its use to the Post Office Department at no charge. So, Mr. Zip became the ambassador, if you will, the spokesman for a gigantic national public service campaign.
I have to ask, did you by any chance actually play the board game?
I did, on my last day at the museum! I played with three other interns. It’s not played on a board, but there are cardboard pieces in the shape of envelopes. Each piece has a ZIP Code on it, and there are also pigeonhole mail sorting pieces. Each player has an assigned area from which you try to collect all the mail.
Where did you do your research?
Partly in the museum’s library, which houses a large donation from George Kroloff, who had worked for the Post Office Department at the time of the ZIP Code campaign. I had the luxury of actually interviewing Mr. Kroloff via phone. At first, I was skeptical that I would be able to find enough resources and information to create a substantial piece of research on Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code campaign; however, I was soon swimming in primary sources! I learned how to pick and choose what sources to use and how to compile them into a cohesive story.
I also worked with the historian at USPS headquarters in D.C., who provided me with several files of information. I had access as well to a fairly large collection of radio and television public service announcements that were part of the Kroloff donation. Nancy and I had the film converted to digital files to be included in the website. And I used the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
Curtin confirms, “Mr. Zip was totally embraced by the country’s growing consumer culture, and seems to have been popular among youth — the ‘mail users of tomorrow.’”
Has your research experience at the NPM come in handy?
Yes, it has. I have a strong interest in local history, and I recently completed my senior thesis using the archives at Western Reserve Historical Society. I’m writing about Jane Edna Hunter, an African-American woman who migrated to Cleveland from South Carolina in 1905, and exploring how she fits into the larger African-American clubwomen’s movement. My research experience at the NPM gave me practice in archival research which came in extremely useful as I worked on my thesis.
Lead photo: © 2012 StudioAlex
Alyson Kuhn wishes she could have been a stamp on the wall at the postmasters’ convention in October 1962, when the ZIP Code plan was introduced. Curtin writes, “Each postmaster […] was photographed hugging Mr. Zip, and the photos were used on the postmasters’ nametags for the duration of the convention.”