“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
For over 150 years, the men and women of the United States Postal Service have delivered mail to every corner and every climate of the country. That delivering has been (and is still) done by plane, train, truck, and on foot. The letter carrier is a recognizable figure in the American consciousness, at once the honest and irreproachable extension of an enormous high-minded organization, and at the same time, Newman from Seinfeld. The look and understanding of the Postal Service is tied intimately to what its people wear.
Like military uniforms, the Postal Service clothing needs to accommodate repetitive physical tasks, in a wide range of weather, and still look dignified while doing it. Follow the route of the USPS uniforms as they evolved into the classic look we know today.
In The Beginning
Postal service in our fledgling nation wasn’t always a well-oiled machine. American communities from the late 1700s to the time of the Civil War were often disconnected and disjointed. Alexis Clements, pictured above, carried mail on foot between Green Bay and Chicago, a 240 mile route. His uniform, if you could call it that, during his career in the 1830s was not unlike that of other American pioneers and adventurers.
Over the next several decades, the Post Office Department, as it was then called, had bigger problems than outfitting its employees. These issues included simple things like, mandating that letter-carriers couldn’t withhold mail based on political differences and creating federal “post routes,” so that local authorities couldn’t hamper deliveries.
Mail delivery was becoming more commonplace in cities after the Civil War and the Federal government had just won a costly victory in the battle over national identity and federal power. In 1868 Congress authorized postal workers to wear uniforms and the result was astounding. Suddenly, postal workers were not merely civilians, they were something more.
Unlike other civil servants, who invariably wore navy blue, postmen wore “Cadet Gray.” This signature blue-gray fabric was cut into simple sack suits, with a smart military-esque black stripe down the pant leg. The whole ensemble was topped off with a cap of the same material and an attachable, reversible cape was available for particularly bad weather.
From 1868 to 1901, many minor adjustments were made to the uniform. Summer and Winter uniforms were perfected, numbered badges were added, and pith helmets gave summertime delivery a colonial sense of adventure. These minute changes were surely crucial to the growing trust of mail-workers, but a huge victory came for them in 1901, when they were permitted to wear a shirt sans jacket on hot days. As long as their shirts were kept neat and worn with tie and belt, letter carriers could do their work with a far greater degree of comfort.
In the 1920s, as warring factions debated whether the exposed shirts should be made of blue chambray of gray poplin, a new badge was introduced. A bold eagle sits above the words, “U.S. Post Office,” giving a serious and respectable energy to the signature piece of headwear.
In the 30s and 40s, the Postal uniform closely mimicked uniform changes made by the military. Light, mild-weather sweater blouses could be replaced with the famous cropped Eisenhower jacket, or the later zip jacket. The zip jacket closely resembled a civilian windbreaker, which in turn, had been the model on which many army jackets had been based.
The above ad was drawn by famous artist Norman Rockwell, for Red Wing, whose Postman Oxford was a popular footwear choice for letter-carriers. In 1944, postmen, for the first time were allowed to wear short sleeves!
Times a Changin’
The 1957 employee handbook for the USPS casually broke gender barriers when it off-handedly mentioned women would be working for the organization. “Items of uniform for female employees are the same as for male employees . . . except for the addition of a skirt.” Within a few years, trousers and jackets would be reworked to better fit the new female members of the Postal Office.
The 1960s saw a loosening of uniform guidelines, even allowing carriers to choose their own summer headwear in 1964. This was monumental, because before that time, a supervisor had needed to make that decision. There were dozens of variations of every uniform piece, but these choices were limited so that all employees in the same city would have a fairly consistent appearance.
Letting the workers themselves decide how they pieced their uniform together was unprecedented. This, paired with advances in textile technology, kept letter-carriers well-outfitted. Especially as military uniform technology improved, the postal jackets began to offer button-in liners and started coming in new synthetic, waterproof materials.
1971 brought some major changes. Postal workers had long worn the eagle on their helmets-badges, but their shirts had featured the above patch with a horse. When the Post Office Department was officially named the U.S. Postal Service, a new patch came into existence: the eagle above the words “U.S. Mail.” Carriers were allowed to wear shorts for the first time in ’71 and permitted to omit the headwear, as long as the rest of the uniform was up to snuff.
The uniform underwent some significant changes in the 80s and 90s. Outerwear garments went from the classic blue-gray to a rich navy blue and the baseball cap was introduced. At the same time that letter-carriers started wearing baseball caps, they omitted the hat-badge from the ensemble, removing a classic piece of the uniform.
The Postal uniform has changed greatly over the ages, adapting to varied climates and societal changes. While letter-carriers have been forced to choose one style for each of their garments to remain consistent with their peers in the same city, they have had a huge range of uniform products to choose from over the years. You can view the current regulations and options therein on the USPS website.
What is truly exceptional is how despite these changes, the reputation of the Post Office has remained the same: reliable, credible, and stalwart.