Featuring Research Volunteer Contributions

Owney the Dog

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Owney the dog

Owney was a scruffy mutt who became a regular fixture at the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. His owner was likely a postal clerk who let the dog walk him to work. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and when his master moved away, Owney stayed with his new mail clerk friends. He soon began to follow mailbags, first onto mail wagons and then mail trains. Owney began to ride with the bags on Railway Mail Service (RMS) trains across the state . . . and then the country! The Railway Mail Service clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot.

Postal workers and others began to mark Owney’s travels by placing tokens, tags, and medals on his collar. These items included baggage check and hotel room key tokens, dog licenses, and numerous items given to the dog by a variety of individuals and organizations. Owney received so many tags on his trips that their weight around his neck began to weigh the poor dog down. After Postmaster General John Wanamaker heard of this problem, he had a harness made for the dog that could be used to display the tags more evenly over Owney’s body while he traveled. Occasionally a postal worker would collect several of the tags and send them to the Albany post office or the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In 1895 the Tacoma, Washington, postmaster sent Owney on a trip around the world as part of an advertising campaign for the city. The dog traveled with mailbags on steamships and trains from Tacoma through Asia, the Middle East, and the continental US before returning to Tacoma 113 days later.

By 1897 Owney had taken ill twice, had become occasionally ill-tempered, and moved with difficulty. A postal clerk briefly took Owney into his home in St. Louis, but the dog would not stay still. In June 1897, while Owney was in Toledo, Ohio, he bit a mail clerk and snapped at his handlers. The Toledo postmaster believed the dog had become uncontrollable and asked the local sheriff to put him down, which he did on June 11, 1897. Mail clerks raised money for preserving their mascot, and he was taken to the Post Office Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1911, the department transferred Owney to the Smithsonian Institution.

Owney’s adventures continue to fascinate children and adults alike. Several children’s books have been written about the well-traveled pup, and he has inspired the creation of contemporary traveling Owneys. The modern-day travelers are toys that elementary school teachers across the US use to teach geography to their classes.

owney on display

Mail clerks raised money for preserving their mascot and he was taken to the Post Office Department's headquarters in Washington, DC, where he was on placed on display for the public. In 1904 the Department added Owney to their display at the St. Louis, Missouri, World’s Fair. In 1911, the department transferred Owney to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1926, the Institution allowed Owney to travel to the Post Office Department’s exhibit at the Sesquicentennial exhibit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From 1964-1992, he was displayed at the Smithsonian museum now known as the National Museum of American History and in 1993 he moved to the new National Postal Museum, where he remains on display next to a fabricated Railway Post Office train car.

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Westminster and Vancouver Tramway Owney tag

Owney’s home was any mail train car he wished to ride at the time. Many of his tags bear the names of 19th century American railroads. Tags such as these were used by travelers who wished to check or store their baggage while traveling.

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Indian Head Penny Owney tag

Occasionally Owney’s fans honored him not with tags or tokens, but with coins and medals. One fan gave Owney a commorative half dollar (a large amount of money to place around a dog’s neck during those hard times). Another attached a medal celebrating President George Washington on one side, and the aluminum mining on the other.

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St. Louis, Missouri Owney tag

By the late 1880s, Owney had acquired national fame as a traveler. Reporters regularly filed stories on Owney’s visits to their towns, including notes on the tags he bore at the time. Many businesses used this opportunity to promote their wares, adding tags to his collection that advertised everything from watches to dry goods.

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Davenport, Iowa Owney tag

Some locations honored Owney with a dog license, either because it was the nearest available tag, or because the donor was worried Owney might be arrested if he wasn’t appropriately licensed. At least one story told of Owney being held in a town until his RPO and Albany clerk friends purchased a local dog license for him.

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Butterfly Bench Show Association Owney tag

Owney was a common mutt, recognized as at least part terrier. If not for his national fame, he would have had no place at a dog show (called “Bench Shows” at the time). But not only did he attend some, but was the star attraction of at least two such shows during his lifetime. Reporters noted that he was “a drawing card” at the 1893 Los Angeles show.

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Owney had no direct connection with America’s firefighters, but that did not stop men from at least two different firefighting companies from attaching tags to his collar.

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Knights Hospitaller Owney tag

Dozens of individuals gave Owney tokens of their esteem. Among these many identification tags were a number celebrating a donor’s fraternal organization. From the Masons to Knights of Pythias, to a comical “Knights of the Grip” organization of Railway mail clerks, these tags offered individuals a chance to show their connection to Owney as well as a larger organization.

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New Jordan House Owney tag

Railway mail clerks worked long hours, often away from home for days. During long runs, clerks (and other train workers) stayed in a variety of places, railway dormitories, private homes, and hotels. The many hotel room number tags in the collection show the deep connection between Owney and his mail clerk friends.

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Toledo, Ohio Owney tag

Because his travels were often chronicled in newspapers, a number of civic-minded boosters chose to provide Owney with trinkets and tokens celebrating a town, state, or local tourist stop.

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Owney tag with entwined letters

Owney received a variety of items from fans during his travels. Some were one of a kind items, such as the entwined letters of a love token or a bell, and sometimes two donors had the same idea by giving the dog keys (although it is unknown what locks the keys open). These items, like all the mementos attached to the dog’s collar and harness, show that some individual or group wanted to make their connection with this world-famous traveling canine last.

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Ontario, Canada Owney tag

Many of Owney’s admirers gave him personal identification tags. Tags such as these were often attached to a set of keys, luggage, or other item that might be lost. Finders used the information on the tags to mail lost items back to their owners.

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Piqua Owney tag

Three U.S. Presidential elections took place during Owney’s travels, the elections of 1888, 1892 and 1896. Given the excitement of political campaigns, and the close connection of postal service jobs to political partisanship, it is surprising that the collection has only one political campaign coin.

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Baltimore and Grafton Railway Owney tag

Railway mail clerks had a special connection to the wandering dog, but all postal employees considered Owney a friend.

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Good for 5 cents Owney tag

Owney’s tags include a number of tokens that were “good for” free items, or a few cents off of a product. These tokens were used much as coupons are today. A merchant could offer 5-cents off of a product as a lure to bring customers in for additional purchases.

Reference:

  • Chicago Daily Tribune, March 13, 1891, “Story of a Canine Wanderer.”
  • Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1897, “Owney is a Dead Dog.”
  • Holder, Charles Frederick. St. Nicholas; an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. “Owney’s Trip Around the World.” July 1896.
  • New York Times, December 24, 1895, “Owney a Great Traveler.”

Nancy A. Pope, National Postal Museum