ZIP codes and unintended consequences

Most postal historians know that ZIP codes were created by the U.S. Post Office Department in 1963 to make the delivery of increasing volumes of mail more efficient. These Zone Improvement Plan codes were never intended to be used for anything but mail delivery. They were created with the post office in mind, not neighborhoods or communities.

However, they’re frequently used as a proxy for neighborhoods for statistical purposes. For example, if you visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, the search box prompts you to enter a state, county, city, town, or zip code.

A recent article from ThoughtCo. examines the use of ZIP codes as proxies for neighborhoods and the implications (along with some fun facts about ZIP codes).


2 thoughts on “ZIP codes and unintended consequences”

  1. There were similar developments regarding post codes in other countries.

    In Germany many postcard collectors still use the old 4-digit post codes (in use 1962-1993) to identify their regional collecting interests, and postcard auction catalogues arrange their topographical postcards this way.

    Germany’s newer 5-digit system introduced in 1993 reserves the first tow digits for a geapgraphical region, but the 3 remaining figures may refer to a geographical region, a post office or other place housing PO boxes, or an individual recipient receiving lots of mail and thus deserving hgis or her own post code. For example, the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin would be reached at its street address Werderscher Markt under post code 10117, but also has its own post code 11013 as an institution. The Federal Foreign Office also owns a separate post code 11020 which serves as an address for private mail destined for members of Germany’s foreign service abroad (of course, the person’s name and the mission – e.g. Botschaft [Embassy] Tokyo) has to be added.

    I have never understood who owns post codes. I automatically assumed that it is owned by the postal services which developed it. However, I see that it is used freely even by lots of other users – including even companies competing with state-owned delivery services! Are these using it under a license? How much do they have to pay? Why do state-owned postal services allow their competitors to use the system – they could tell them to develop one of the own, which of course must not be similar to the copyrighted system already in place.


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