All Over The Map: An abbreviated history of abbreviations for Washington

Mar 18, 2022, 8:44 AM | Updated: 9:33 am
Abbreviations for Washington range (clockwise from upper left) from "W.T" for Washington Territory ...
Abbreviations for Washington range (clockwise from upper left) from "W.T" for Washington Territory on a building in Port Townsend; "WASH" on Post Office Department list in 1963; "WN" on an address rubber stamp circa 1970; to "Wa." in a 1965 newspaper ad. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio and public domain)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio and public domain)

Sure, everybody knows nowadays to “Say WA,” but the convoluted history of abbreviations for the Evergreen State demands a full accounting. Or at least an abbreviated one.

The name of our state — Washington — has a lot of letters (10, if I’m counting correctly). So it’s not surprising that people have been abbreviating “Washington” for a long time on documents, envelopes, and signs.

Other than in old newspapers, one of the coolest examples of an early abbreviation for what’s now Washington is visible along the foundation and near the cornerstone of a building in Port Townsend constructed on Water Street in the mid 1880s.

On a cast iron plate, down at sidewalk level, the plate reads: “Washington Iron Works, Seattle, W.T.”

The “W.T.” stands for pre-statehood “Washington Territory,” and the choice of those two letters couldn’t be any simpler or clearer.

But once statehood came in 1889, that “W.T.” went away, and the Washington abbreviation wars devolved into two different camps. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.

One of the two, somewhat surprisingly, was “Wn.” – upper case W, small n, followed by a period – the “n” making sense since it’s the last letter in “Washington.” For whatever reason, “Wn.” (or just “Wn” or “WN”) really stuck around. Searching online archives easily turns up examples of “Wn.”(and its variations) still being used in newspaper ads as recently as the early 1980s.

The other post-territorial abbreviation was “Wash.” – capital W, everything else lower case, followed by a period. Like the similar use of “Boston, Mass.,” this four-letter abbreviation is the easiest to use when speaking – you can say “Seattle, Wash.” out loud and save two syllables (and, it’s not clear at all how to pronounce “Wn.” – and not clear if anyone ever even tried in polite conversation).

As it turns out, “Wash.” is also the recommended abbreviation in the AP Style Manual (and the old UPI Style Manual) that many print and web journalists use, so you still see “Wash.” in print and online.

The real upstart abbreviation around here is “WA.” For this, the credit – or the blame – goes to the Post Office.

The Post Office began officially recognizing specific state abbreviations back in the late 19th century, but there wasn’t much in the way of enforcement or even encouragement. Mail was sorted by hand, by people reading the address and deciphering what the addressor had written – full state name or custom abbreviation, it didn’t matter too much.

Fast-forward to 60 years ago, and the growing population and growing volumes of mail led to introduction of the ZIP CODE – ZIP short for “Zone Improvement Plan” – as part of increased automation of mail sorting. Numbered codes were first used for “zones” – such as “Seattle 4, Washington” – in urban areas during World War II, to make non-machine mail sorting (by humans) easier and more standardized in a time of labor shortages and substitute letter carriers taking over for those who’d left to join the military.

Along with introduction of the ZIP CODE, on July 1, 1963, the Post Office Department (precursor to the U.S. Postal Service) issued a new list of official abbreviations for every state. This was meant to help save space on the last line of every address, as some mechanical addressing machines only had 23 spaces, and often needed that room for city name – and for the new state abbreviations and ZIP CODE.

That first list wasn’t very consistent. Some state abbreviations had two letters – such as “NJ” for New Jersey. Some had three letters – such as “NEB” for Nebraska. And some had four, including “MASS” for Massachusetts and, you guessed it, “WASH” for Washington.

And so that first list didn’t last long. By October 1963, the Post Office Department regrouped, and put out a new, more consistent list with only two letters for every state. A “WA” was born!

But the Post Office didn’t really start asking people to use those abbreviations until 1969, when wider adoption of automatic mail sorting machines was transforming how individual pieces of mail were routed to their final destinations.

That time around the end of the 1960s generates some confusion that, like a misaddressed letter, is not easily sorted out. From newspaper archives and old documents, it’s clear that many individuals and businesses kept using “Wash” and “WN.” One 1968 article in the Seattle Times even states that the National Zip Code Directory from the Post Office Department lists “WN” as the official abbreviation. A spokesperson from the U.S. Postal Service responded to KIRO Newsradio’s inquiry and refuted this 54-year-old article: “WN was not an official postal abbreviation for Washington,” the official wrote in an email.

Like so much about the 1960s – free love, Woodstock, protests, etc. – it seems like it was “anything goes” when it came to how people abbreviated Washington, and Wash, Wash., Wn., WN or WA were all in use. The officially sanctioned “WA” didn’t really become ubiquitous until sometime in the early 1980s.

One more non-postal wrinkle in all of this is in the annual registration of pleasure boats.

That registration process was originally managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Their abbreviation for Washington was “WN,” which a columnist for the Spokesman-Review once wrote made him think of beer, brats, and Wisconsin whenever he looked at the letters and the numbers on the bow of every Evergreen State powerboat.

According to spokesperson Christine Anthony, when the Washington State Department of Licensing took over the process from the Coast Guard in the early 1980s, they just left the abbreviation as is – which is why you still see the bows of ski boats and fishing boats with the letters “WN” in their registration number.

“’WN’ was the U.S. Coast Guard designation for Washington,” Anthony said. “At one time, the boats had to be registered through the Coast Guard, and when the program transferred to DOL the ‘WN’ configuration was in place, so we just kept it.”

Anthony told KIRO Newsradio that this difference between how Washington is abbreviated on boats and postal correspondence has never created a problem. In fact, Anthony says, no one has ever asked about “WN” versus “WA” in the 17 years she’s been on the job – until KIRO Newsradio reached out this week.

One more twist – when Washington license plates underwent a redesign in 1963 (coincidentally, the same year the ZIP CODE was introduced), it ruffled the feathers of some purists when, to make room for newly anticipated “month” tabs and to save manufacturing costs, the state went with “WASH” rather than the full name. Some special plates for public agencies even went a step further, reducing the name of the Great State of Washington to “WN.” Everyone survived the crisis, thankfully, and the month tabs – and staggered registration, rather than everyone renewing their tabs on Jan. 1 – were delayed for many years.

As with so many aspects of Evergreen State history, when it comes to abbreviations, it’s clearly best to just write – and just say – “WA.” Or, we could always switch back to calling our state “Columbia” — and abbreviate it CA, CO, CL or CM.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: An abbreviated history of abbreviations for Washington