Sunday, March 13, 2011

Blast From the Past: Boston Edition

In the olden days, one could address an envelope as follows:

Legally, the postal service is under the obligation to deliver a piece of mail whenever possible. In the old days, one's carriers knew exactly where everybody lived, and the envelope would get through.

Here's another example:

[above images from]

Postal zones were introduced in larger areas in 1943. For instance, in New York, New York, postal zones generally progressed from the south of Manhattan north -- zones 1 to 40. Furthermore, in The Bronx were New York zones 51 to 75. Here are maps of Manhattan and Bronx ZIP codes.

[Aside: Mail processing for the Bronx was handled in New York until Congress authorized the institution of an independent Bronx post office and processing center. Approval occurred in August 1962. (The author has been unable to ascertain the exact date The Bronx became an independent post office.) Ironically, processing at the Bronx GPO might be moved back to Manhattan at the end of this year.]

Once postal zones were implemented, here is how people could address their mail:

The 1960s heralded the advent of ZIP (Zone Improvement Plan) codes. From "By July 1963, a five-digit code had been assigned to every address throughout the country. The first digit designated a broad geographical area of the United States, ranging from zero for the Northeast to nine for the far West. This was followed by two digits that more closely pinpointed population concentrations and those sectional centers accessible to common transportation networks. The final two digits designated small post offices or postal zones in larger zoned cities."

Most post office signs show their modern ZIP codes. But I discovered two Boston post offices whose signage shows their old postal code designations: the Grove Hall Station and Belmont Branch.

Boston 21 correlated with Grove Hall in Dorchester, and became ZIP code 02121:

The Boston suburb of Belmont was the 78 zone of Boston, and now has the ZIP code 02478:


  1. According to New York Postal History: The Post Offices and First Postmasters from 1775 to 1980, by John L. Kay and Chester M. Smith, Jr. the Bronx Central Annex station of New York changed to the Bronx post office Oct. 2, 1962.

  2. North Syracuse 12, Syracuse, NY, which I think was closed recently, was another with the old zone number on the building.

  3. I’ve recently been doing some research on post offices and Zip Codes in Massachusetts. From what I’ve found, Boston had the zone codes earlier than 1943. Boston appears to have introduced them around 1920. 1943 is probably when the Postal Service introduced them as a widespread practice, but perhaps a few very large cities had them earlier. The original zone codes do line up very well with the modern-day 021xx and 024xx zip codes, and for the most part would look very familiar to anyone who knows the current 021xx and 024xx numbering. (024xx was split off from 021xx in 1998.)

    In the original numbering, codes 1 through 7 were assigned to post office boxes at the Boston main post office; codes 8 through 18 were assigned to “Boston proper” (the core neighborhoods of the city of Boston); codes 19 through 37 were assigned to outlying neighborhoods of the city of Boston; and codes 38 through 94 were assigned to suburban areas whose post offices were branches of the Boston post office. The codes flowed from community to community in a loose geography, with post offices in the same town or city using contiguous codes (e.g., 36 and 37 were assigned to post offices in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston; 69, 70 and 71 were assigned to post offices in the city of Quincy). The original numbering still largely holds true today, and the vast majority of the original zone codes are still used as zip codes today for the same purpose as they originally were.

  4. Some notable things that have changed, Part 1:

    --Codes 1 through 7 survived into the zip code era as 02101 through 02107. At the time zip codes were introduced, the main Boston post office was in a federal building located at Post Office Square, which was named the John W. McCormack Federal Building at some point. Around 1979 or 1980, the Boston main office designation was shifted to the Fort Point Channel postal complex (previously known as the South Postal Annex) and the former MPO became the John W. McCormack Station. The John W. McCormack Station closed in 2004, and these zip codes were discontinued at that time.

    --While the range of codes from 8 through 18 are still used for the core neighborhoods of Boston today, as zip codes 02108 through 02118, most are not used for the exact same purpose as they originally were. It is apparent that these codes were reorganized at some point, although I don’t know when that was. My guess is that this was done early on.

    --In the original numbering, most of the codes ending in 3 were skipped, presumably for future expansion. That explains why several of the codes ending in 3 are anomalies today – they were not part of the original numbering, but were added later. For example, 02123, 02133 and 02163 are used for post offices in “Boston proper” but are within the ranges of codes used for the outlying neighborhoods or the suburbs; 02153 is assigned to a post office associated with the city of Medford but is not numbered contiguously with the other Medford zip codes (02155 and 02156; 02154 used to be Waltham, which has since been split off to the 024xx range); 02492 and 02494 are used for two post offices associated with the town of Needham, but 02493 is a post office in a completely different town, Weston (the Weston post office did not became a branch of the Boston post office until after 1920, so it was not part of the original numbering).

    --In the original numbering, code 57 was assigned to Medford Hillside, a now-defunct post office that was in the city of Medford. Today, however, 02457 is assigned to Babson Park, a post office in the town of Wellesley (this used to be 02157 before the 024xx split; it is not contiguous with other post offices in Wellesley, which use codes in the 02480s). At some point, a decision was apparently made to take this code away from Medford Hillside and give it to Babson Park instead. I don’t know when that was. Medford Hillside closed in 1967; the Postal Bulletin notice announcing its closing gave its zip code as 02155, which is the main Medford zip code.

  5. Some notable things that have changed, Part 2:

    --The post office in Lexington did not become a branch of the Boston post office until after 1920, so it was not part of the original numbering. When it became a branch of Boston, it was assigned zone code 73, which later became zip code 02173. When the 021xx/024xx split occurred, Lexington was switched to 02420 and 02421. While many of the communities split to 024xx expanded to cover more zip codes than previously, all did so using as a starting point the 024xx code(s) that corresponded to their old 021xx code(s). Lexington is really the only town or city whose 024xx numbering is completely unrelated to its old 021xx numbering. I assume this was done because the Postal Service wanted to give Lexington a second zip code, but there was no room for it to expand contiguously from 02473 (the communities that used 02172 and 02174 were also switched to 024xx). In any event, this is why the last two digits of Lexington’s current zip codes don't really fit the numbering scheme at all.

    --The history of the codes from 95 to 99 (zip codes 02195 through 02199) is a bit fuzzy to me. To make a long story short, it looks like they were either not used in the original zone code numbering at all, or were at best afterthoughts that were tacked on after the bulk of the numbering had been worked out. Some of these numbers appear to have been recycled for multiple purposes over time. Currently, 02196 is used for post office boxes at the Milk Street Station, which opened in 2004 as a replacement for the old John W. McCormack Station, while 02199 has been used by the postal station in the Prudential Center complex since it opened in 1965. (Note: for many years prior to the 021xx/024xx split in 1998, zip code 02195 was used for post office boxes at the Nonantum post office, which is associated with the city of Newton. This post office didn’t exist in 1920, and was apparently assigned code 95 at some later date. When Newton was split to 024xx in 1998, the Postal Service took this as an opportunity to switch Nonantum to a zip code that would be contiguous with the other Newton zip codes, and assigned it 02456.)

    --In addition to the 021xx zip codes, Boston also has a number of 022xx zip codes. Some of these appear to have been split off of the corresponding 021xx code for use for new delivery areas (e.g., 02210, 02215); some appear to have been split off of the corresponding 021xx code for use as dedicated zip codes for post office boxes (e.g., 02238, 02269); some appear to have been a continuation of the 02101-02107 numbering for post office boxes at the old MPO (02108 and 02109); many are used for post office boxes at the current Boston MPO or are assigned to specific buildings or high-volume customers. I don’t know when these were introduced, or if they existed before the zip code era. Was 02215 once zone code 115, or something like that?

  6. The 02215 Zip Code used to be part of Boston zone 15. Likewise, 02210 was part of Boston zone 10. Both were split off when Zip Codes were created, because the areas had become significantly more developed.

    Astor Station [Zone 23 / Zip 02123], Essex Station [12 / 02112], Back Bay Station [17 / 02117], Tufts University Branch [Medford 53 / 02153] were strictly for P. O. Boxes and had no street delivery. There were a few others in suburban towns that were part of the Boston Postal District. I believe that Medford Hillside would have been one of these. Nonantum is another.

    Babson Park 57 / 02157 is just the campus of Babson College, and some P. O. Boxes. Soldiers Field 63 / 02163 [which is in the Allston/Brighton neighborhood of the City of Boston] is Harvard Business School + P. O. Boxes. Zone 33 / Zip 02133 is the Massachusetts State House + P. O. Boxes.

    The Prudential Center building complex opened in 1965 and was assigned Zip 02199; technically it was never Boston 99.

    Also with the creation of Zip Codes, 02201 was assigned to the new Boston City Hall, 02202 was a new state office building, and 02203 was a federal office building, all in the new Government Center urban renewal area. 02204 became the Mass. Dept. of Revenue.

    Many of the current 022xx Zips are assigned to P. O. Boxes used by banks or cash management companies, which process bill payments that are mailed to their clients. Each bank, etc., gets its own Zip; each client gets a unique Box number within that Zip.

    The "Field Companies", which had an extensive mail advertising and fulfillment business in Watertown, was given its own Zip, 02277, later changed to 02477; but they are now out of business.