In 1888, a stray Terrier mix named Owney was informally adopted by the U.S. Railway Mail Service. Owney’s travels began in Albany, New York; riding on mail sacks, he journeyed all over the U.S. As he traveled, employees of the Railway Mail Service would attach tokens and dog licenses to his custom-made harness and jacket. After his death in 1897, his body was preserved, along with his special harness and numerous dog tags, and is still proudly displayed at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
Because of his history of “collecting” tags, Owney is also the unofficial mascot of the International Society of Animal License Collecting, a small but fiercely devoted club dedicated to preserving the history of dog tags and generating interest in this unique hobby.
Though they were originally made to be disposable, vintage dog license tags are lovely little artifacts that exhibit a touching amount of care in their design and craftsmanship. It is easy to see why they were so often kept by families for sentimental or ornamental reasons, and why they still appeal to collectors. Finding a century-old tag is an extraordinary experience, especially if it is still attached to an old leather or metal collar. Keeping them as they were found honors these sentimental keepsakes, and also preserves the historical evidence that allows more accurate dating of the items.
Dog licenses and the practice of taxing tags have a long and international history. Dog licenses were documented in Utrecht, Holland, as early as 1446, and there is evidence that dogs were taxed in Germany by 1598. One of the oldest known surviving dog licenses dates from 1775 and is from Rostock, Germany. The oldest known American dog license tag is an 1853 Corporation of Fredericksburg (Virginia) medallion.
With the rise of middle-class pet ownership in the nineteenth century, the bureaucracy involved with dog licensing expanded and the appearance and design of the tags and licenses themselves became more involved. The earliest form was paper dog licenses. They came in a variety of colors, with details of the dog being licensed on the front; sometimes a printed image of a dog appeared as well. Paper licenses (from Massachusetts) were issued as early as the late 1840s. An 1899 Southborough, Mass., paper license fee was a whopping two dollars for one dog—a very high price for that era, and evidence of the value people placed on their pets.
The next step, toward the end of the 19th century, was metal license tags, those familiar collar accessories that so often announce a dog’s presence with a cheery clink. At least 16 countries are known to have issued metal tags before 1900, but these are extremely rare; the most commonly found tags date from the 1940s on. Brass, copper, tin and aluminum were popular for tags, and many old metal tags have acquired handsome, well-worn patinas. Humorous, quaint, elegant or naïve, these metal miniatures are incredibly varied.
It’s intriguing to imagine the process by which these strictly functional items, indicating payment of a tax, came to be designed. Some are simple round or oval disks, but popular shapes also include acorns and bells, as well as thematic forms like doghouses, dog bones and dog-head silhouettes. More unusual forms can also be found: six-pointed stars, three-leaf clovers, locks, keystones and butterflies. Some U.S. states used the shape of their capitol building and, in 1896, the city of Chicago issued an unusual and ornate beehive-shaped license.
Foreign tags often incorporated a coat of arms, an embossed dog or particular breed on their tags, sometimes in amazingly fine detail. Austria used highly ornate images of dogs on their brass and copper pre-1900 tags. It’s interesting to see how history, in the larger sense, has had an impact on the small history of dog tags. For example, during WWII, compressed fiber and plastic tags were created in order to spare the metal that was needed by the military. In 1976, many states issued Liberty Bell-shaped tags to honor America’s bicentennial; they were either red, white and blue or a single-color anodized aluminum.