Dog License Tags

Dog License Tags

Owney, a scruffy Terrier mix, wandered into the annals of dog tag history when he trotted into the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. With a peculiar attraction to the scent of mailbags, Owney soon became a fixture at the post office.

Owney, Railway Mail Service Mascot

Owney Mail Dog
Owney perched atop mailbags. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Never wanting a mailbag to get too far away from his sensitive snout, Owney began to follow the scented mail sacks as they journeyed beyond the inner sanctum of the Albany post office. At first, he rode atop mailbags as they bounced around within the wooden confines of rickety mail wagons. It wasn’t long until Owney was spotted aboard train cars of the Railway Post Office (RPO), where he closely guarded the mailbags as they toured the state of New York and beyond.

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As Owney’s rail travels grew, the Railway mail clerks took notice. Not only did they find the scruffy mutt amusing, he also seemed to be a good luck charm. At a time when train wrecks were a common occurrence, no train Owney rode was ever involved in a wreck.   

Owny Rail Mail Service Clerks
Owney with Railroad Mail Service Clerks. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

The Railway clerks knew a great dog when they saw one, and unofficially adopted him as their mascot. To mark the stops along his numerous expeditions, clerks would pin medals, tokens, tags, and dog licenses on his collar.

On April 9, 1894, a writer from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “Nearly every place he stopped Owney received an additional tag, until now he wears a big bunch. When he jogs along, they jingle like the bells on a junk wagon. An extra harness was constructed by some friend, who saw that kindness would gradually choke the dog unless the extra weight could be attached to his back.” 

If you’re wondering if Owney was proud of his jingly adornments (not those), the writer clarified Owney’s position, writing “He is always glad to turn over on his back to permit an inspection of his trophies, but when a stranger’s hand gets near the buckle, Owney growls.

Owney Dog License Tags
Several tags given to Owney by his admirers during his travels. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

In 1895, having already traversed much of the United States, Owney embarked on an around-the-world extravaganza. Proudly perched atop his beloved mailbags, Owney explored much of Asia and Europe by rail and steamship. Each time Owney returned home to Albany, the clerks removed his accoutrements and saved them.

A Dog Worthy of the Smithsonian

Shortly after his death in 1897, Owney’s body was preserved, along with his special harness and 1,017 dog tags. The scruffy little pooch remains stoically on guard at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

Owney National Postal Museum
Owney on display the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

As the original “collector” of dog tags, Owney became; and still remains, the unofficial mascot of the International Society of Animal License Collecting―a passionate group of collectors devoted to preserving the history of dog tags and generating interest in the hobby.

If It Moves, Tax It.

While the first known dog license dates to 1446, in Utrecht, Holland, America didn’t start the practice of licensing until the mid-1800s. The oldest known surviving American dog license tag is an 1853 Corporation of Fredericksburg (Virginia) medallion.

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As dog ownership grew throughout the middle-and-upper-class in the 1800s, so did government intrusion. As President Ronald Reagan so eloquently stated,

Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” – Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan
In case you didn’t know, President Ronald Reagan was a bad mama jama.

Dog License Tags

Early dog license tags were made of paper and came in a wide array of colors, along with the specs of the dog; such as sex, age, breed, color and name.

Paper dog license
Paper dog license from 1890 Amesbury, Massachusetts.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the composition of dog tags transitioned from paper to various forms of metal; from brass and copper to aluminum and tin. And the designs of the tags were as varied as the canines that wore them.

Shapes range from round or oval to thematic forms like dog-heads, dog bones, and doghouses. Other designs vary from stars, three-leaf clovers, horseshoes, locks, shields, and bells to acorns, hearts, and beehives.

What’s especially interesting about the varied designs of dog tags, is that government municipalities created and commissioned them!   

1895 Chicago dog tag
Original 1895 Chicago Dog Tax Tag License Permit.

Dog tags momentarily reverted back to their pre-metal composition during WWII, as metals such as brass and aluminum were needed to produce armaments and other supplies needed for the war effort. In place of metal, dog tags were made from fiber-composite or plastic.

Dog Tag Collectability

So what makes dog tags so collectible? For one, as every loving dog owner can attest, there’s always that one critter that captures your love and affection for a lifetime. And for that alone, families have long saved their dogs’ tags for sentimental reasons.

In addition to dog lovers, dog tags also appeal to historians, coin and token collectors, and those interested in regional history, like a specific city or state. Their small size and the seemingly endless variety from which to collect, also contribute to the collectability of dog tags.

Be Kind To Your Canine

Whatever the reason for collecting dog tags, just remember to be kind to your canine…


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