And falling down a bunny hole...
Some of you (like me), are of an age where you can easily remember the days before Google. Or even, gasp, before the internet! Before Google, there were, of course, other search engines. But finding what you were looking for was not for the faint of heart or those in a hurry. Searches would often lead you down a path you didn't know existed. The new search tool with the funny name caught on quickly for one good reason, it was better than anything else at the time. And Google has never stopped trying to improve its performance in providing even more focused results.
A search phrase like "dog tags" is still vexing to search engines. We know because we've been typing that into search engines for over 20 years to see where our site is listed. Tens of thousands of people search those two words every month. The results you will get are a random mix of websites about military dog tags and dog tags for pets. With just those two words, there's no way for even the smartest search engine to determine whether you mean dog tags or dog tags. So you get both.
That led us to do a little searching, who is responsible for the confusion? TLDR: soldiers began calling their military tags "dog tags." Today, nearly everyone knows and calls military ID tags, dog tags. Everyone except the US military who have never officially used the term.
The purpose for military ID has always been the same, to help identify soldiers who were injured or killed. The earliest mentions of that concept can be traced as far back as to the ancient Greeks. Before a battle, soldiers would write their name on a stick and then tie it to their wrist. Fast forward a couple thousand years and, we find civil war soldiers writing their names and hometowns on a slip of paper to pin inside their coats.
Eventually, military ID was standardized and made more durable, usually marked onto a metal tag. By WWII, US military ID tags had evolved into the size and shape we are all familiar with- thin plates of stainless steel, rectangular with round sides. In addition to just identifying the wearer, the stamped writing included info on blood type and religious affiliation. Two tags were worn on a bead chain around your neck, just like a dog tag.
Like the military tag, pet tags have been in use longer than you may have thought. The internet has accepted the history of the pet tag as written in an article by Diane Bandy in 2003. She is a collector of antique pet tags and runs the website doglicense.org. Often quoted but rarely cited, she states that the first known mention of a pet tag was in Utrecht, Holland in 1446. And that the oldest known US tag is from Fredricksburg, VA in 1853. Both of these antique tags were license tags. What about personalized, ID tags?
One of the earliest documents that mention pet identification tags was written by Thomas Jefferson. In 1811, he wrote a letter to a neighbor suggesting that all dogs should be required to wear a collar with a tag identifying its owner. But he wasn't concerned about helping lost dogs get home. No, some of his very expensive Merino sheep had been killed by packs of dogs that roamed freely in rural Virginia. He wanted a way to hold the dogs' owners responsible.
No history of pet tags would be complete without the story of Owney. Owney was a mutt who lived at the Albany, New York branch of the US post office. In 1888, he followed a mail clerk to work and found that mailbags made a perfect bed for sleeping. Soon he became the unofficial mascot of the Albany station. Owney enjoyed going for rides in the horse-drawn wagons, riding atop the pile of mailbags. He went on longer and longer wagon trips until eventually, Owney graduated to riding the mail trains traveling all across the country.
To ensure Owney would make his way back home, an Albany clerk attached a tag to his collar that read: Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York. Soon, mail clerks along the train route began adding tags as souvenirs of the towns that Owney had visited. Eventually, the collar was overloaded with souvenir tags and, the Albany clerks had to remove them. They kept them, attaching many to a harness that Owney would wear on special occasions.
Owney died in 1897 under suspicious circumstances. And this is where the story gets weird. At the time of his death, Owney had become quite famous. The mail clerks collected money to do something special to memorialize their beloved mutt. They decided to have him stuffed.
His preserved body, wearing his harness covered with tags, was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Owney was donated to the Smithsonian and has been on display there since 1911. Some accounts of his travels mention that Owney collected over 1000 tags in his travels but, only 372 remain in the collection today. There’s a lot more to read about Owney, and you can find it by googling his name. Who knows where else that search will lead you?
Just like the old, old days of internet searching, you start reading about one subject and end up traveling down a rabbit hole and learning about something else entirely. I hope you didn’t mind the trip.