While vacationing at his Texas ranch in June 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered federal agencies to do something U.S. citizens had been urged to do for two years: use their Zip codes.
A lot of Americans thought this was pretty rich coming from LBJ. Why? Because the White House had been in no hurry to use its own Zip code. When new stationery was printed that summer, it did not include the Executive Mansion’s Zip code: 20500.
“There is only one White House in the country,” presidential aide Bill Moyers explained. “All you have to do is say ‘The White House.’ You don’t even have to say ‘Washington, D.C.’ It is superfluous to add a Zip code to it.”
Last week, Answer Man wrote about the role postal executive Jamison Cain played in introducing the Zip code, including putting his home address in Arlington, Va., on sample materials distributed nationwide before the program’s July 1963 launch. Although the Zip code was eventually considered a success, it met pockets of resistance — and not just at the White House.
The reason? A lot of people were just sick of numbers.
In 1962, the Internal Revenue Service began requiring that Social Security numbers be used on individual tax returns. That same year, phone companies started introducing what they called “all-number calling” to replace the rather lovely alphanumeric arrangement celebrated in the Glenn Miller tune “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”
AT&T insisted that all-number calling would help “eliminate confusion, wrong numbers and dialing errors caused by central office names that sound alike, such as ‘Mitchell’ and ‘Mutual,’ and by mistaken spelling such as ‘LI’ for LYRIC instead of LY.”
In Washington, that meant phone numbers such as JEfferson 4-2608 were out, replaced by 534-2608. Residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side were losing their BUtterfield 8.
Some Americans resisted. In San Francisco, the Anti-Digit Dialing League was formed to fight what it called “creeping numeralism.”
It was in this climate that the post office planned to introduce the Zip code.
In fall 1962, a Post Office Department employee named Rita Moroney was dispatched to interview banking and telephone executives and gauge how the public had reacted to the numerical changes. A Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone representative said that the real outcry was minimal and that most pushback could be dismissed as “the more-or-less facetious output of columnists who were at a loss for subject material.” (Ouch.)
An executive at AT&T thought the backlash was real. He told Moroney that he welcomed the coming Zip code, as it might be helpful in “taking the heat off” the telephone company.
George Kroloff had a front-row seat to the Zip code machinations. He joined the Post Office Department’s public information office not long after the Zip code was announced. “In the ’60s, post-McCarthy hearings, people still were looking under their beds for Communists,” wrote Kroloff, of Rockville, Md. There were conspiracy theories that the Post Office Department, AT&T and anti-Vietnam War protesters were all examples of Soviet meddling.
Wrote Kroloff: “Yep, the folks who were pushing the addition of fluorides into drinking water supposedly were part of that plot.”
That sounds far-fetched, and yet in 1964, the Leader newspaper of Lexington, Ky., opined that the country’s “swing to the right” — as evidenced by the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the GOP’s presidential candidate — resulted from two things: the Post Office Department’s Zip code and the IRS ruling that people had to use their Social Security numbers on their taxes.
Syndicated newspaper columnist Marquis Childs noted that the poet Stephen Vincent Benet had celebrated the beauty of such typically American place names as Deadwood, Medicine Hat and Dead Mule Flat.
Wrote Childs: “If those names give way to ZIP numbers we shall be infinitely poorer and nearer that day — in 1984 perhaps — when each individual is a number sited on a vast concrete throughway with the landscape all a dreary sameness.”
Such concerns seem quaint now. We use our Zip code. We hand over our data.
A month after the Zip code was introduced, Postmaster General J. Edward Day resigned. He’d been in the job for two years and said he left President John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet to earn more money in the private sector. The resignation prompted D.C. comedy writer Bob Orben to quip that the real reason Day quit was because “the Russians broke our Zip code.”
Why “Zip” and not “ZIP,” which, after all, stands for “zone improvement plan”?
In an online chat in 2014, Bill Walsh, The Washington Post’s grammar and style guru who died in 2017, noted: “Some acronyms get so well entrenched they lose the caps. Like ‘radar’ and ‘scuba.’ ”
The Associated Press’s style may be “ZIP,” but The Post’s is “Zip.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.