Oral History Interview with Paul Sheehan, 2022 March 5

« Postal Workwear

Sheehan, Paul
Window clerk; LSM operator

Recording

Oral History Interview with Paul Sheehan

5 March 2022 • 00:24:27

Preface

The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Paul Sheehan on March 5, 2022. The interview took place in person at Sheehan’s home in Massachusetts and was conducted by Rachel Lifter, a volunteer for the National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Also present were Diane Sheehan (DS), Paul’s wife, and Don Stahl (DoSt), the photographer. This interview is part of the National Postal Museum's Postal Workwear Oral History Project. This transcript of spoken word has been lightly edited for readability by the National Postal Museum.

Interview

Narrator’s Name: Paul Sheehan (SHEEHAN)
Interviewer: Rachel Lifter (LIFTER)

[00:00:00]

LIFTER: This is Rachel Lifter. I am facilitating an oral history of Paul Sheehan for the Postal Workwear Oral History Project. Today’s date is March 5, 2022. We are doing this interview in Mr. Sheehan’s home in Massachusetts. This interview will be available for public access through the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. We are going to start with a discussion of your background and then talk about your experience with postal workwear. So, name?

[00:00:29]

SHEEHAN: Paul Sheehan. LIFTER: Date of birth?

SHEEHAN: December 6, 1951. LIFTER: Place of birth?

SHEEHAN: Boston, Massachusetts. LIFTER: Current employment status?

SHEEHAN: Retired. 5 years ago, last Thursday.

LIFTER: Really? So what was your length of postal-related work? SHEEHAN: About 43 years, 1973 to 2017.

LIFTER: Wow. And what positions did you hold at the U.S. Postal Service? SHEEHAN: I was a clerk.

LIFTER: What was the location? SHEEHAN: Many.

LIFTER: Really? All across Massachusetts?

SHEEHAN: No, all across Boston. Boston, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain. Arlington. Cathedral Post Office; that’s in Roxbury. Roxbury Post Office; that’s in Dudley Station. Roxbury Crossing Post Office; that’s in Mission Hill. Jamaica Plain Post Office. Hyde Park Post Office. And I worked numerous stamp details and special events.

[00:01:50]

LIFTER: Did you say numerous stamp details? SHEEHAN: Stamp details, yes.

LIFTER: So, just to…

SHEEHAN: What’s a stamp detail? Alright. In 1986, the Post Office issued a John Harvard stamp, and I had to work a special detail with another lady. Her name was Irene, and they dedicate the stamp--they sell things. They have special first-day cancellations, sell the stamSheehan. And we had to dress up all nice nice, and there was a big event. Politicians, everything, you name it. And we sold a lot of--we had to go to Harvard Square and count out our drawers and take the products back to Harvard University. And we did pretty well. Irene and I, we sold a lot of stuff.

We had a presence on board at the Harvard stamp show and we made a lot of money for the US Postal Service.

LIFTER: May I ask—

SHEEHAN: And I worked another detail. It was about the 1984 Soccer Olympic Trials. It was at Harvard Stadium also. Different countries would come and play each other, like Iran, Iraq, United States. You name—I can’t remember all the countries, but we had a special van. The guy his name was Danny Shea, he worked in the van, and people would walk by. And we had special Olympics stamps, special cancellations, you name it. And one funny thing was that Vice President Bush was walking by, and the Secret Service came by and had us move the van because they didn’t like the way it was parked. It was an open spot for a rifle on top of the buildings. So they had him move the van. Secret Service actually moved the van. So they [inaudible], if there was any such thing, but they were doing their homework. And there was also a big trailer, which was bigger. That was the main one. This was the one people walked by, Danny Shea and I worked.

But the other one had 5 or 6 people; you’d walk in the trailer and buy all kinds of stuff in there. That was the bigger one. Ours was mobile. It was actually a van that you could drive; they did drive it.

LIFTER: So was it exclusively stamps that you were selling?

SHEEHAN: Stamps and cancellations and products yes, different things. 1984. That was like July or August, just before the Olympics started—Summer Olympics usually start in August.

LIFTER: That’s so interesting. So, obviously, the theme of this interview and oral history is workwear. And you said—

[00:04:37]

SHEEHAN: Workwear. And I had a special suit. I had--they measured us for suits. It was a blue--I don’t have it anymore. That was 30-something, almost 40 years ago, 1984.

LIFTER: So, was that given to you? You were measured for it?

SHEEHAN: Measured for it and we kept it, yes. There’s a picture uSheehantairs, but I couldn’t find it. There was a picture of all of us, and the Postmaster had a soccer ball and everything. It was a nice picture. I wish I could find it. I tore the house apart trying to find it.

LIFTER: Aw, well thank you.

SHEEHAN: Don’t thank me because I didn’t get it. LIFTER: Well--

SHEEHAN: [LAUGHS]

DS: If we find it, we can get it to you. SHEEHAN: I will do that. I’ll mail it to you. [00:05:17]

LIFTER: Thank you. So you started at the Postal Service in 1973. SHEEHAN: Yes, I did. I was 21.

LIFTER: So can you tell us about why you applied for that job? And what the early years were

like?

SHEEHAN: I got out of college in ’73. I graduated from BC [Boston College] in 1973, and I took the test at Brighton High School. And I got called in; it was October or Nov--it was October ’73. And starting pay was $4.58 an hour. [Inaudible] Now it’s probably $4 a minute. And that was decent money back then, I know it sounds crazy.

LIFTER: I believe it.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, it’s almost 50 years ago.

LIFTER: And did you immediately go to the clerk role? [00:06:13]

SHEEHAN: Yes, I started working nights, 10:30[pm]-7[am] for about almost eight years. And I had--it wasn’t bad because I had two days off in a row. I used to get out of work at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning and didn’t have to go back til Monday night at 10:30.

LIFTER: Oh I see, yeah. And what were you doing then? More sorting?

SHEEHAN: I was on a machine. It would be a machine--LSM machine. It had a hand, looked like a hand. It was a vacuum, and it would suck the letter up and drop it in front of me, and I had to type the Zip Code, very quickly. Very quickly.

DS: You can ask him any Zip Code in this state--

SHEEHAN: Not any Zip Code, but yeah, that’s what we had. We had headphones because it was very, very noisy. So they didn’t care if you put the headphones on. All you had to do was see; you didn’t have to do anything because the machine was noisy. And if you hit the thing right, it would go into a big machine and it would go in the right bin. If it was going to Idaho, if you hit the right Zip Code, it would go in a bin that was--this was 40--this is 50 years ago almost. It will be 50 years next year.

LIFTER: In that capacity, did you have any specified workwear?

SHEEHAN: Not in there. That was in—it was like working in a submarine. No windows, no doors. There were doors, but no windows. You were in the building, but no windows. A lot of noise, no windows.

LIFTER: When did you start wearing— [00:07:47]

SHEEHAN: When did I start wearing uniform? About 1981. I bid--you bid jobs on seniority. There was a big list, called a bid sheet. And I bid a job in Jamaica Plain to work days. And I’ve been working days ever since, from ’81 to 2017. And I got my first day job, I think it was like March 4 or 5 in 1981. And I got married 3 days later. I always joke that I got a day job and a wife in the same week. And I did. I also turned 30 that year. And I was--I worked the window an awful lot, from ’81 til basically on and off until 2017. I was working the window even then. Not as much the last few years. And these are the things I had to--I had to wear that shirt on the window. And this was a tie that I wore.

LIFTER: So where did you get these items? [00:09:00]

SHEEHAN: Different uniform companies. They gave us a uniform allowance. It would go up a little every year, and I watched that video and they were very much into belt buckles, I noticed. [Paul is referring here to the recording of presentations given by students of NYU’s master’s program in Costume Studies, called “Spotlight on the US Postal Uniform, from May 2021]. That’s a belt buckle.

LIFTER: Oh wow, so I’m just going to describe this for the recording. SHEEHAN: Sure.

LIFTER: That it has--

SHEEHAN: It’s one of the newer ones. You can take that off--it can come off. LIFTER: So did you buy the belt buckle separately from the belt?

SHEEHAN: It came like that. It fits right on there. It snaps on and off with the teeth.

LIFTER: Oh yeah. And did you have multiple belt buckles?

SHEEHAN: No, I just got one. Like that. I didn’t have to wear it, but you had to use the money up. [00:09:50]

LIFTER: So when did you start to get the uniform allowance? Was it in ’81?

SHEEHAN: ’81 I got one, but it was like, I don’t know how much it was. The letter carriers get much much more than I did because they had to have boots and things. And a guy gave me this, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anything like that before.

LIFTER: Yeah, this is a full hat and face mask with the eagle on it.

SHEEHAN: The guy who gave that to me his name was Freddie Putnam. He lived in Southie [South Boston]. I used to go to the Patriots games and bring this. I’ve done that before.

LIFTER: Was he a letter carrier?

SHEEHAN: Parcel post driver. He drove a truck with packages. Same thing basically. He has to go out in the same elements, maybe even more.

LIFTER: So you said you used the allowance--you started to get the allowance in ’81--

SHEEHAN: ’81. I bought--I had shirts. I could get pants. Because I had to wear. They didn’t want you to wear dungarees on the window. So I had pants, I could probably dig out a pair from upstairs, but we probably threw all of them out. They were kind of, not bright blue, but they were blue. There were gray ones too. They had gray ones.

LIFTER: And that’s mostly what you purchased with the allowance? And the tie? SHEEHAN: Tie, belt buckle--

DS: Sweaters.

SHEEHAN: Sweaters. They had sweaters with the logo on it. I couldn’t find any sweaters. And here’s the badges we had to wear. That one’s in better shape, it says ’91. That’s 30-something years old. And that’s the one I used to wear, but that fell apart.

LIFTER: I’m looking at two badges, and we’ll take pictures of them. SHEEHAN: Ah, this one has my Social Security number on it.

LIFTER: Ah, I’m not going to take a picture of that one! [laughs] Thanks for showing that though.

SHEEHAN: They actually did that back then. That was in ’91. They didn’t care about showing numbers then, that much.

LIFTER: It seems like, with the allowance, you were saying letter carriers and truck drivers got more money.

SHEEHAN: Much more, yes. Because they had to wear much more--they had to wear pants, shirts, and jackets. When the weather got cool, they had to wear coats with some type of logo on them. I was working inside most of the time.

LIFTER: And so you just had to wear the shirt, the tie—

SHEEHAN: On the window. If I wasn’t on the window, I didn’t have to wear all of this as much. [00:12:28]

LIFTER: What did you think about wearing it? SHEEHAN: No problem. Part of the job.

LIFTER: And what did you think about the allowance? I realize you get an allowance every single year—

SHEEHAN: Yeah, you use it. You use it up. You try to use it up.

LIFTER: And how long did the clothes last for? Were they good quality?

SHEEHAN: Not bad, yeah. They’ll last a year, and you just get more. Or whatever you want. If you don’t need pants or a shirt, you get something else. Sweaters were always good to have because it would get cold. Cause a lot of times I had to unload trucks. I’ve done that too. I did that a lot.

LIFTER: Were there any particular suppliers that you would buy from? I know that there are a lot.

SHEEHAN: No, I didn’t use one exclusively. I can’t remember the names now. But they sent catalogs. There would be catalogs at work sometimes.

LIFTER: And you would call in? What did the purchasing process look like? SHEEHAN: Diane, you used to order them, right?

DS: You just used to fill out an order form, and send it in.

SHEEHAN: Fill out an order form, do it on the computer, and send it back. DS: Before computers, we used to just mail them—

SHEEHAN: And it would come to the Post Office. It wouldn’t come to the house. The uniforms would come to the Post Office.

LIFTER: Interesting. I realize today it’s all online. SHEEHAN: Yes.

[00:13:52]

LIFTER: Let’s go through some of these objects a little bit more. SHEEHAN: There’s not a lot.

LIFTER: The shirt--

SHEEHAN: The shirt I had to wear on the window. There’s different shirts. There was other ones—that’s the only one I could find. If I was going to work on the window, they’d want me to wear something that was from the uniform company. It was yellow ones, blue ones.

LIFTER: And did you have all colors, yellow and blue?

SHEEHAN: I had a yellow one. I had a white one. And I had blue ones. I used the blue a lot. I had long sleeves, short sleeves.

LIFTER: And about how many items could you get with a yearly allowance?

SHEEHAN: I think I had $150 or something like that. Whatever--you just used up whatever what there. If there was more than--let’s say you went $5, $10 over, you’d just pay them, it wasn’t a big deal.

LIFTER: I’m just going to put it back over here. SHEEHAN: Sure.

DoSt: Is that a name tag on the inside or--? SHEEHAN: This is probably the uniform company. LIFTER: Very faded.

DoSt: Inside the--

DS: I think it’s where he put the badge. DoSt: The other side of the breast pocket.

SHEEHAN: You put the badge here, like that. Name tag. [Diane and Paul are indicating on the shirt where the badge would be placed].

DS: He used to have the little standard--

SHEEHAN: They’d put your name on it. I don’t think I could find it. I don’t think I have any of those left.

LIFTER: So I realize that over the course of 1974 to 2017, postal workwear changed a lot in style. SHEEHAN: Yes it did.

LIFTER: Do you remember any shifts and changes in styles?

SHEEHAN: Not a lot. The letter carriers were basically the same. They’d just get more different things. I saw that video with streetwear [a reference to the recording of presentations given by students of NYU’s master’s program in Costume Studies], I don’t think, I don’t know if they do that now.

LIFTER: Which part are you talking about? SHEEHAN: There was a video with streetwear. LIFTER: Yeah, with stylish streetwear?

SHEEHAN: Very stylish, different stylish. [00:16:02]

LIFTER: So what were some of the changes that you witnessed or you experienced through your dress?

SHEEHAN: Well, a lot of times there--everyone could wear shorts, but you had to have certain dates. There were dates on it. You could wear short pants, girls and guys.

LIFTER: Which were the dates?

SHEEHAN: Different dates of the year. You couldn’t wear shorts in November or January, that’s what I mean.

LIFTER: And how were all these rules communicated? Through the handbook? SHEEHAN: Through the handbook. Or we had job huddles everyday, almost.

LIFTER: Could you describe that?

SHEEHAN: Different things they want you to do, or not do. Be nice to each other. I mean it’--I probably shouldn’t say this, but we had all kinds of things about sexual harassment. We had that all the time. Stuff like that. To be nice to people. How to treat--how not to treat people.

DS: Where they go over different incidents that occurred.

SHEEHAN: Yes, they would. They would go over--if something happened, if somebody got attacked or, like that. That happened too. But we had job huddles all the time. Any pressing issue that was something they wanted to tell you. It was a little like the army. You were warned until they gave you orders.

LIFTER: Were there many uniform infractions over the years that were discussed?

SHEEHAN: Yeah, sometimes there were people--the bosses would tell people you got to do this, you got to wear this. They weren’t shy.

LIFTER: The bosses?

SHEEHAN: The bosses weren’t shy. I mean, they’ve got a job to do too. They’re trying to keep the image up and doing everything right.

[00:17:48]

LIFTER: So, I’d actually like to turn now to your experience of engaging with the customer, in the uniform. First, I know you were a window clerk, so what is that experience like?

SHEEHAN: Depending on where you work, it’s different. I work in the inner city. You see a lot of things there that you don’t see anywhere else, in the more affluent neighborhoods.

LIFTER: How did customers—do you think that people interacted with you differently when you were wearing your uniform and not?

SHEEHAN: Well, they trust the Post Office with the uniform.

LIFTER: And I guess some of my bigger questions are how did you feel when you wore the uniform?

SHEEHAN: Fine. Everyone—I looked okay, and we were supposed to look okay, and the people probably liked that and appreciate that.

[00:18:52]

LIFTER: And I guess also what did the job itself mean to you?

SHEEHAN: Ah, it was tough at times, but it was a good job. There was overtime involved, a lot of times. I wasn’t shy about getting overtime. But it was busy because it was a lot of line, the Post Office does have lines, everyone knows that. And all the things don’t take five seconds. Someone who wants five or ten money orders, that’s going to take a while. Where I worked, a lot of people don’t have checking accounts. They have cash, and they want five or ten money orders, you got to plug them in and cut them and make sure they’re right. And you got to count the money, make sure that’s right. And at the very end I had to take a job—not inherit—I volunteered for it in a way, passport pictures. They were $15. I don’t know if they were cheaper, but that was a big business. And this is a little funny thing in a way: one of the things I had to do was take pictures of babies. There was one lady, delivered a baby, brought it home from the hospital and didn’t go home first. She came to the Post Office with the baby, didn’t go home, to get the picture. And what I had to do sometimes with babies, there was a place like this [indicating the table]. There was a cut out, and there was a big white, plastic sheet. And the most important thing about taking a baby’s picture is that the eyes have to be open. So I put the baby down. This baby hasn’t gone home yet. And I had to stand on a stepstool, take a picture down like this [indicating that the baby would be lying on the table and he would be shooting from above, looking down]. And the baby can cry all it wants, might even be better. But the eyes have to be open because I used to make silly Donald Duck sounds—[quack quack quack]—and the baby would open its eyes, so I could take the picture. But yeah, that was a big business later on, in like 2000 on.

LIFTER: Interesting, part of the expansion of the Postal Service.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, they take passport photos. CVS does it too, I think. But yeah it was $15, I had to stand on the stepstool with the baby and look down. And don’t drop the camera on the baby.

LIFTER: Oh my gosh, no.

SHEEHAN: I had to do that a lot. And the people in line were looking at me, “Who’s the crazy guy standing up in the air with a camera making crazy noises.”

LIFTER: What were some of the other peculiar or interesting aspects of the job?

SHEEHAN: Getting up at 2:30 in the morning a lot. I had to be there at 4 o’clock, sometimes earlier.

[00:21:56]

LIFTER: And how do you think your job changed over the years?

SHEEHAN: Everything’s online and automated now. When I first worked the window, it was pencil and paper like you got. You didn’t plug in the numbers for the money orders, you had to write them down and make sure you were right. There was a machine like this, and you put the money order down, and there was a reel you’d pull back and forth. It’s unthinkable nowadays. It’s all computerized. It’s probably for the better. They want everything to be quicker and more accountable.

LIFTER: Is there anything else that you would want to share for the Postal Museum? I’m thinking about—I realize that the project is postal workwear. Are there other aspects--

SHEEHAN: Nah I don’t think so--

LIFTER: of your time in the postal service-- [00:22:53]

SHEEHAN: It was well over 40 years, but it didn’t seem like that. LIFTER: What do you mean?

SHEEHAN: I don’t know. It just seems like it went by too quick. I know it wasn’t quick at all. 43, 44 years. [Coughs]. But it was fun, it was tough.

LIFTER: Do you still speak with others that you worked with?

SHEEHAN: A couple times, not much. Usually they have bad news when they call, somebody passed away. It’s part of the game too. But I don’t see or call them that much, probably once in a while. There’s a guy who’ll call me once in a while. We used to go--his name was Georgie Webb. We used to go to the Pawtucket Red Sox games and Providence Bruins games. He calls once in a while.

LIFTER: Well, we can stop the recording. SHEEHAN: Alright.

LIFTER: Unless there’s anything else you’d like to—

SHEEHAN: No, I’m trying to think. It was a long--it was a long career but at least I had a job for 43 years, and it was good.

LIFTER: Seems like it.

SHEEHAN: Yeah.

LIFTER: Well, thank you very much. SHEEHAN: You’re welcome very much.

LIFTER: I’m going to stop the recording and that’s it.

Subjects

Sheehan, Paul

Lifter, Rachel

Postal Workwear Oral History Project

Postal service – Massachusetts – History

Postal service – United States – Employees – Biography

Postal service – United States – Employees – History

Postal service – United States – Employees – Uniforms

Postal service – United States – Employees – 20th Century

Postal service – United States – Employees – 21st Century

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