A few years ago, during an East Coast vacation with my pre-teen nieces, we did the museum circuit in Washington, D.C., including a stop at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. It was my sister’s idea, and I thought a likely snooze-fest. But I was wrong; the museum is a fascinating place with a particular jewel, Owney, the canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service. Still looking rather jaunty in all his taxidermic glory, Owney wears a little brown jacket decked with the various medals and tags he accumulated on his many journeys.
For those who don’t know of about Owney, he was the beloved by clerks on mail-sorting trains at the end of the nineteenth century and became an icon of American postal lore.
According to the National Postal Museum, the stray Terrier-mix appeared at the Post Office in Albany, N.Y., in the 1880s. Clerks took a liking to him and named him Owney.
Fond of riding in postal wagons, Owney followed mailbags onto trains and soon became a good-luck charm to Railway Mail Service employees, who made him their unofficial mascot. Working in the Railway Mail Service was highly dangerous; according to the National Postal Museum, more than 80 mail clerks were killed in train wrecks and more than 2,000 were injured between 1890 and 1900. However, it was said that no train ever met with trouble while Owney was aboard.
As Owney traveled the country, clerks affixed medals and tags to his collar to document his travels. In August 1895, Owney journeyed around the world, sailing out of Tacoma, Wash., on a steamer bound for Hong Kong. Upon his return during Christmas week, the Los Angeles Times reported that he had visited Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Another reporter claimed the Emperor of Japan had awarded the dog a medal bearing the Japanese coat of arms. Owney’s triumphant return to American shores was covered by newspapers nationwide.
After Owney died in Toledo, Ohio, on June 11, 1897, mail clerks raised funds to have his body preserved.
This month, Owney will follow the mail again. On July 27, the U.S. Postal Service (no stranger to putting pups on stamps) will issue a first-class 44-cent forever stamp in his honor. The stamp features a new, and quite handsome, illustration of Owney by artist Bill Bond of Arlington, Va.
► A dedication ceremony will take place at the National Postal Museum on Wednesday, July 27 at 11 am. It’s free and open to the public.