A 45 record of Ethel Merman singing ZIP code song
I distinctly remember the cartoonish ZIP code man with the stringy right-leaning body and bug eyes. I was still a young girl when he became the popular mascot of the Post Office’s then-new five-digit ZIP code.
I hadn’t thought of the little man in years until I got hold of a box lot of ephemera recently. He wasn’t in the box, but there was an item even more intriguing: A 45 rpm record in a plain white paper sleeve. On the label:
“A Public Service Announcement of the U.S. Post Office Department. Ethel Merman Sings the Post Office ZIP Code Song.”
I don’t recall her singing the song, but I found in my research that she sang her little heart out in public service announcements to get folks to accept and use the five digits in their mailings. The song was sung to the tune of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo Dah,” which was first featured in the 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South” based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales.
The record was in amazingly good shape, with only minor scratches, as if it hadn’t been taken out of its sleeve very often. It contained two renditions of the song. I listened to both on my old record player, which I keep around for times like these when I pick up old 45’s or record albums. Click on the player below to hear her introducing the song and singing it.
The Post Office initiated the ZIP code in 1963, but the idea of a Zoning Improvement Plan (ZIP) to offer more efficient mail delivery had actually been born some time earlier. A Philadelphia postal worker named Robert A. Moon actually had the idea back in the 1940s, according to his 2001 obituary in the New York Times, but Post Office officials apparently were not interested.
He kept at it and the ZIP code was finally accepted. Moon’s ZIP was made up of three numbers, but the Post Office expanded it to five. According to the article, the Post Office does not credit him with creating the ZIP code as we know it. He is credited with contributing the first three numbers.
The Post Office apparently didn’t have an easy time trying to persuade folks to use the code. Many resisted, opting instead to just ignore the numbers and send their mail the way they’d been doing it all their lives. The Post Office wasn’t giving up on its new system, though, putting together a nationwide promotion campaign that included Merman’s song; a new mascot, Mr. ZIP, and even the cartoon character Dick Tracy, who was featured talking on his wrist TV to Mr. ZIP in a 1970 poster.
Mr. ZIP was a character made to look as if he’d been drawn by a child, but the whimsical illustration was actually done by an advertising agency. He underwent some changes – he was first pictured leaning to the right and then was drawn as an erect figure. He appeared as himself on stamps and on collectibles, as well as on mailboxes and mail trucks.
He also had his own collector’s club, the Zippy Collectors Club. The National Postal Museum last year set up a website devoted to him. Mr. ZIP was discontinued in 1986. You can see other Post Office posters here.
Merman did publicity shots for the Post Office where she’d stand beside a poster of a mailman holding envelopes bearing ZIP codes, according to the 2009 book “Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman.” I found a 1963 Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune article about a talking Mr. ZIP poster appearing at a post office there. People could push a button on his uniform, and hear a 90-minute message plus Merman singing the song.
The codes started off as voluntary, became mandatory for second class and bulk mail in 1967, and were soon extended to all mail. Here are links to ZIP code trivia and Zip code outlines in Google maps.