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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Z is for ZIP Codes

I'm old enough to remember when one mailed a letter to large cities in the United States, he or she would place a one- or two-digit number between the city and state. The oft-advertised Spiegel catalog was at Chicago 9, Illinois. (The postage for a one-ounce first-class letter was four or five cents.) I've since discovered that the United States Post Office Department (USPOD) implemented postal zones for large cities in 1943.

Then on July 1, 1963, the Post Office introduced the Zone Improvement Plan. The country was carved into 10 sections, 0 to 9. From there, 5-digit numbers (codes) were developed to identify each post office associated with an address. It was also the time that the two-letter state postal abbreviations were instituted.

I was fascinated as a kid by this. Just from the first digit in the ZIP Code, I knew where a letter came from. If it started with 0, it was from New England, New Jersey, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and military addresses in the European theater; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is 09360.

So, in New York State, 100-102 are Manhattan, 103 is Staten Island, 104 is the Bronx. 105 is suburban New York, with the places listed alphabetically, 106 is White Plains and so forth through 119, on the tip of Long Island. 120 and 121 are suburban Albany, 122 is Albany and 123 is Schenectady. Certain businesses or other institutions have their own ZIP Codes. 10048 is the zip code assigned to the former World Trade Center in New York City. The State University of New York in Albany is 12222, while the SUNY campus in Buffalo is 14222. ZIP Code 12345 is General Electric in Schenectady. And Spiegel is now ZIP Code 60609.

When I worked at a store in Albany in the 1980s, I decided to figure out where the orders for a horror film book was coming from. A decidedly large plurality of the requests, for some reason, were from 480 and 481, wealthy suburban Detroit.

In 1983, the US Postal Service began using an expanded ZIP Code called "ZIP+4." "A ZIP+4 code consists of the original five digit ZIP Code plus a four digit add-on code. The four digit add-on number identifies a geographic segment within the five digit delivery area, such as a city block, office building, individual high-volume receiver of mail, or any other unit that would aid efficient mail sorting and delivery." It is not mandated, but businesses use it often and there are savings to be had for bulk mailings.

On rare occasions, a place is assigned a ZIP code that does not match the rest of the state, e.g. the place is so remote that it is better served by a center in another state. "For example, Fishers Island, NY, which is off Long Island, NY, has ZIP code 06390 and is served from Connecticut, while all other New York ZIP codes begin with 1. Some Texas ZIP codes are served from New Mexico and have codes beginning with 8 rather than 7." And something I only discovered recently: "returned government parcels from the District of Columbia are sent to ZIP codes beginning with 569, so that returned parcels are security checked at a remote facility, put into place after after the anthrax scare."

The Census Bureau does not tabulate data by U.S. Postal Service ZIP Code. Instead, it created a new statistical entity called the ZIP Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA) to meet requests by data users for statistical data by ZIP Code. ZCTAs are close area approximations of USPS ZIP Codes service areas. For more information, go here.

Find a ZIP Code by entering an address here.

Hey, you ABC Wednesday folks from outside the U.S.: how do YOUR postal postscripts work? I know that Canada has an alphanumeric system, and the first letter is roughly alphabetical from east to west across the provinces, with the territories last (X and Y).



Scott said...

480-- in the Detroit area isn't always too wealthy. ;)

Some very interesting information. I have always wondered about zip codes and how they were picked. I know some of it has to do with alphabetical order. And I didn't know that the WTC had it's own zip.

Nik said...

They only recently introduced a post code in New Zealand -- by which I mean in 2006!!! there was a kind of method used starting in the '70s but the requirement to use it like a zip code is very new here, I guess because we're a small enough country nobody is going to get confused as to which Auckland or Kaitaia you mean.

Nik said...

Oh, and this is amusing:
In October 2008, New Zealand Post launched a `remember your postcode` campaign, offering a NZ$ 10000 prize for remembering a postcode.

Wayne said...

No wonder people 'go postal', it would take several degrees to understand all that goes into zips and all the off-shoots.

Nik, that is amusing. You'd think knowing where the island is would be enough, lol

anthonynorth said...

Another interesting post. In the UK the post code has a basic 2 letters for a region or city, then a couple of numbers for the area within the region, followed by a further 3 letters or numbers to signify the actual street and block of addresses. If you know how it works, you can usually track a person to within half a dozen houses thru the post code.

Mara said...

Great post! In the Netherlands all you need to know is the postal code (four numbers, two letters) and the housenumber and that's it: the letter should arrive at exactly your address.
Thanks for the information about your system!

RuneE said...

ZIP-codes for us non-US citizens immediately spells US :-)

We have our own Postal-code system that is a four digit system(more or less) based on geography with Oslo starting with 0001 (I think) and then moving on to the largest city in each county. But then we are a small country.

Lily Hydrangea said...

I've never seen a map like that before! Cool Z post.

jay said...

I know we had some basic kind of code before the precise, multi-letter-plus-digit/s code we have now, but I can't remember what it was!

I know that theoretically, it's possible to post a letter within the UK using only the person's name plus the house number and the post code.

Leslie: said...

I've noticed that the zip codes are twice as long now as they were not that long ago! Of course, so far in Canada, we still have only 6 digits/letters combos.

Janie said...

Gad zooks, this is a lot of information on zip codes. I guess I never thought about how they evolved. It is interesting that remote areas are sometimes served from a state other than their own, and I had no idea D.C. had a special system instituted because of the anthrax scare. Great Z!

Regina said...

This is a good one!


Darrin said...

You can download a more up-to-date version at