Uniformed Workers Were a Boomer Norm

Baby Boomers grew up in an era when many more working people, outside of military personnel and law enforcement, were required to wear uniforms than we see today. Bus drivers, plumbers, diner waitresses, car hops, Candy Stripers, TV repairmen, gas station attendants, soda jerks, milkmen, fast food workers, delivery people and a host of other service-related businesses required workers to wear uniforms.

Post-War, and particularly during the 1950s, was a time when people wanted things to be clearly defined: “The American Way” was proven in war to be the best, and it was a philosophy based on order and personal responsibility. A uniform was a quick identification of which person was the worker, and what type of work he or she would be expected to perform. In a supposedly classless society, however, the uniform was a separator based on economics. Since the uniforms were most often associated with service-related jobs, people wearing them could be classified as blue collar. While wealthier clientele may have looked down their noses at these workers, ultimately it meant they were part of the burgeoning middle class that emerged in boomer times.

Despite some derogatory connotations, for the most part, people were happy to wear their uniforms. It was an outward sign that they were employed, which wasn’t always the case in pre-War days following the Great Depression and leading into World War II. And it identified the worker as a company representative at a time when people took pride in their job, no matter what it was. More so, it meant they were actively working on getting their slice of The American Dream, which in boomer days meant a house, a car and a couple of kids.

Mister Boomer clearly recalls many workers in uniform, particularly the milkman, TV repairman and gas station attendant. The milkman and TV repairman came to the house. Mister B’s family placed empty bottles and received fresh milk in the “milk box” that resided on the front porch twice a week, so the uniformed milkman was a regular sight.

Mister B’s father always tried to fix anything in the house that stopped working, but when things were beyond his expertise, a repairman would be called. On occasion, a TV repairman would arrive, wearing a one-piece uniform with his name embroidered on one of his front pockets and his company’s name on the back.

The gas station attendant was a quintessential symbol of the uniformed worker in boomer days. It was a time before self-service pumps. A young man would race out of the gas station when you pulled up. He would be wearing a head-to-toe uniform based on the gas company’s colors. In early days, attendants wore bow ties and hats as well, but by the mid-60s those weren’t seen much. Once the gas pump nozzle was secured and filling the tank, the uniformed attendant would ask if the patron wanted an oil check, or at very least would grab a squeegee and clean the car windshield. All the while the attendant would smile as he rendered any car service necessary.

Texaco made “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star” a household phrase for boomers. The company was telling customers that Texaco uniformed workers were the best and the most skilled.

Like a good percentage of boomers, Mister Boomer had his stint as a fast food worker, so he did have a short time when he was required to wear a uniform. He neither hated nor loved the requirement, but rather, saw it as part of the job.

Today you’ll still see workers in uniforms, but not as many as in earlier decades. To be sure, postal workers, transit workers, diner waitresses, fast food workers, FedEx and UPS delivery people, some air conditioning technicians and a few others still wear uniforms. For one, Mister B remembers the crisp white uniform that registered nurses wore, but today, it’s hard to differentiate an RN from an technician in an animal clinic since they all seem to wear similar colored scrubs. Yes, Mister B is aware that there are different colors for medical workers that denote different jobs in a hospital situation, but he still thinks things aren’t as clear cut as they once were.

The biggest difference Mister B sees in those who are still required to wear a uniform is the level of neatness, or rather, lack thereof. The casualization of the American mode of dress that began in the late 1960s has mushroomed today into a permissiveness that allows a certain level of personalization among uniformed workers. This in itself would seem to be a contradiction of why workers would wear uniforms at all.

Did the strict requirements on uniform appearance and wear make a difference in the level of service that was delivered back then? Or was it all a marketing ploy to change perspective? Is the era of uniformed workers coming to an end? Will we be approaching a time when customers and workers will be wearing the same types of clothing, and if so, will that affect how people think about the person providing them with a service? We already know that the relationship between a worker and client, as well as the services rendered, has changed since our boomer days. Maybe the questions should be, what are our expectations, and what should our expectations be for uniformed and non-uniformed workers?

Did you or someone in your family have to wear a uniform at work, boomers?