Happy 50th birthday, ZIP code

Celebrate the golden anniversary of the U.S. Postal Service's 5-digit system by going back to a time when snail mail was considered the epitome of "space-age speed."

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Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
2 min read
ZIP code promotional sign on a hotel letter drop. United States Post Office Department

The U.S. Postal Service's ZIP code system turns 50 on Monday, harkening back to a time when those five digits were the side effect of the tech behind a quickly evolving communications industry.

The service introduced the ZIP code, or Zone Improvement Plan, in 1963 as "five trailblazing numbers" that "launched every piece of mail with space-age speed and precision," according to a cheesy 1960s public service announcement video that encouraged people to use ZIP codes while addressing mail.

The nearly 15-minute video also featured a singing group called "The Swingin' Six," who made ditties about why the ZIP code is so amazing for keeping long-distance romance alive ("A carefully ZIP-coded Valentine, it goes straight there in just one day!") and remedying mail mix-ups caused by poor handwriting and identical city names. A ZIP code represents a postal region, post office section, city, and local post office number.

"As up to date as the computer, as timely as the fantastic ZIP code reader, electronically reading ZIP codes and sorting the mail," the narrator says.

The use of what we now affectionately call "snail mail" was growing rapidly then, doubling to 80 billion in 1963 from 40 billion in 1948. Unfortunately for the postal service, that growth has slowed in the last 50 years due to e-mail, other forms of communication, and private shipping services. The agency currently delivers about 40 percent of the world's mail, roughly 160 million pieces of mail.

But the ZIP code system remains. Catch more of "The Swingin' Six" and the PSA below.

[Via Time]