There’s no easier joke in the world than one criticizing the U.S. Postal Service for being slow. How slow? It took them 19 years to decide to implement the service’s most successful process improvement in its history: the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) code. Postal inspector Robert Moon submitted the original proposal for a numerical ZIP in 1944, but the U.S. Postal Service didn’t get around to implementing non-mandatory ZIP codes until July 1, 1963. And you thought second-class parcel service moves a little slow.

So what were these zones that Moon wanted to improve? Beginning in 1943, the U.S. Postal Service assigned one- or two-digit numerical zones to major cities so that post offices serving these areas could more quickly determine to which part of, say, New York City a letter was headed. Moon wanted to preface these enumerated zone numbers with a three-digit code for the sectional center facility that bulk processed the mail for each area. To this day, ZIP codes still follow this general pattern. The first three digits indicate a processing facility, and the last two digits indicate a delivery zone — usually a local post office that serves the delivery area.

In 1983, 20 years after implementing the then-optional ZIP codes, the U.S. Postal Service adopted the still-optional +4 ZIP codes for additional precision. The +4 codes might represent a delivery area as discrete as a city block or a single apartment building.

The above rules apply mostly to Standard ZIP codes, but there are three other types: P.O. Box-only ZIP codes, Military ZIP codes, and Unique ZIP codes. The Unique ZIPs are for specific buildings or locations that receive such a high volume of (or such highly-sensitive) mail as to require special handling. For example, the White House is assigned ZIP code 20500, despite being physically located in ZIP code 20006. The main processing center for the Educational Testing Service — through which passes every SAT packet ever graded — has the Unique ZIP code 08541. A number of corporate HQs, government offices, and major universities have Unique ZIPs, but only once in its long and cautious history has the U.S. Postal Service ever granted a Unique ZIP code to a fictional character.


Check out more Geek Trivia

Which of the Trivia Geek’s hundreds of Geek Trivia columns–written over a nearly eight year period spanning multiple formats and attempts at cancellation–constitute his personal top 10? These gems.

  1. Geek Trivia: What science-fiction work was the first to propose a manned artificial satellite — a space station?
  2. Geek Trivia: What substance in Wint-O-Green Life Savers makes these candies more prone to triboluminescence?
  3. Geek Trivia: What was the first video game to recognize the famous “Contra Code?”
  4. Geek Trivia: What other famous science-fiction spaceship forced a redesign of the original Millennium Falcon model for the original Star Wars film?
  5. Geek Trivia: Why has no one ever recorded the lyrics to the original Star Trek theme?
  6. Geek Trivia: Who were the only two true guest stars in the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000?
  7. Geek Trivia: How many nuclear power sources have operated on the moon?
  8. Geek Trivia: What is the maximum prize a one-day contestant on Jeopardy! can earn, and what are the odds of it occurring?
  9. Geek Trivia: What was the original name of the Nintendo video-game character Mario, and what was his occupation?
  10. Geek Trivia: What was the world’s first coin-operated video arcade game?

Who is the only fictional character ever to be granted a U.S. Postal Service Unique ZIP code, a distinction normally reserved for corporations, universities, and government agencies that are routinely deluged with high volumes of mail delivered to a single address?

Our imaginary celebrity is none other than Smokey Bear, the iconic ursine advocate of forest fire prevention. Smokey was created in 1944 by the Ad Council as a mascot for fire-prevention efforts during World War II, when lumber was a critical war resource. He grew so incredibly popular in the early 1960s — and thus received so many letters from his fans — that, in 1964, the U.S. Postal Service granted him his own ZIP code: 20252. By that point, a Unique ZIP code was small potatoes for Smokey; in 1952, the Smokey Bear Act was passed by Congress to take him out of public domain and place his image under the control of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in perpetuity.

(Two asides: Yes, there was a real Smokey Bear. No, his name was not Smokey the Bear. The real Smokey was an American Black Bear cub rescued from a fire in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico in 1950. He was named after the fictional Smokey and lived for more than 25 years at the National Zoo in Washington DC. His remains are interred at Smokey Bear National Park in Capitan, NM. The “the” in Smokey’s name is not correct or official. The definite article was placed in Smokey’s name for lyrical purposes in a 1952 hit song by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, which has led to some confusion, but Smokey’s middle name is not the.)

To date, Smokey is the only fictional character to receive a Unique ZIP code, largely because the U.S. Postal Service prefers to route mail addressed to such figures to real, humorously appropriate addresses. For example, mail addressed to Santa Claus (assuming he’s fictional) is routed to the post office in Santa Claus, Indiana (though the General Electric facility in Schenectady, NY often gets its share, thanks to its 12345 ZIP code, which many people assume is the ZIP code for the North Pole).

That’s not just some parsimonious parcel parsing, it is an excellent epistolary example of Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

Check out this week’s quibble.

Editor’s note: This article was republished in March 2019 to include the list of Jay Garmon’s top 10 favorite Geek Trivia posts.