For Christmas this past year I got a really unique and unusual gift from a dear friend who runs an antique store. It was a box of very old dog tags that date from 1926 to 1950. It’s a gift that I absolutely treasure!!
I’ve always been a big history enthusiast! Maybe it stems from growing up in a huge Victorian-era house built in 1910. It was a marvelous old home, full of history and stories of its previous owners. I had a big imagination, and I loved to think about what life had been like at the turn of the century for those occupants. I always wondered about the previous families and the kids who ran up and down the stairs and halls. Did they get scolded for running in the house or for making too much noise on the wide pine floors? Did those kids slide down the banisters just like I did? What secrets or mysteries did the walls and floors of the house hold?
And what about the family pets? Did the previous owners even have pets? Were they allowed in the house with the family? Did they enjoy sleeping in front of the fireplace as our Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix had loved to do?
At the turn of the 20th century, most dogs were working dogs and not family pets in the same way that we currently think of a family dog. They usually worked for their owners and had a specific job. It was unusual for them to be allowed in the house to live with their families. Generally only pampered dogs were allowed inside to live with their owners, and that just wasn’t all that common in the early days of the 20th century. Things changed after WWII, and dogs started to take on the family pet role that we think of today.
Unwrapping the box of dog tags made my mind spin in circles! As I looked at them carefully laid out in their keepsake box, they almost seemed too precious to handle. Being a bit sentimental myself, I knew what these tags represented, and I knew the meaning that they would have held for me with my own dogs. I didn’t touch them for a good long while, and then curiosity got the best of me, and I picked them up, trying to figure out which one was the oldest, and I put them in numerical order.
I was told that the tags had been purchased online from a museum that had received them as part of an estate that had been donated to them. No other information was known about the dogs that wore them, or the family who had owned the dogs. The history of the tags themselves was very interesting to me.
Since the tags all came from one Virginia estate, it makes sense to me that these tags likely belonged to one or two dogs, since the years are sequential, and there’s only a three year gap between the first set and the last. The first set of tags date from 1926 to 1936, and the second set dates from 1941-1943 and then a lone tag from 1950. Not knowing the breed of dogs, it’s difficult to know how long they would have lived, but an average dog probably lives 12-14 years, give or take. Of course, a dog could have died younger, and another replaced it without any skipping sequence in tags, so there could have been more than two dogs. It’s a mystery with no solution, so my mind is just working likely scenarios.
Most of the tags look like they are made of brass, except for two of the tags. The one that was issued in 1943 is actually a tag made of pressed paper….a sort of cardboard. That was a war year, and all of the metals were being saved and used in the war effort, so even dog tags weren’t exempt from WWII! The tag issued in 1950 seems to be aluminum, just like you would expect to see today.
Some of the tags are so tiny compared to the current dog tags issued in my lifetime. Each tag states the registration number, the state of Virginia, Male, and the year that the tag was distributed. Some of the tags state “Male dog” on them. Most of the tags are in unique shapes and sizes from year to year. They also each have two holes on them, rather than the single hole that our current tags have. I suppose that gave the owner the option to affix the tag flat to the collar, instead of having the tag dangling from the collar the way our current dog tags do. I’m not sure how they were attached, but it makes sense to me that they might have attached them this way. Perhaps the reason might have to protect the dog from getting them caught on anything, or from losing the tag altogether while he was working.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of the dogs in our small, Midwestern town just ran free. There was no leash law, and no one had a fence to keep their dog at home in their yards. Smaller dogs often didn’t leave their yards, but larger dogs just followed their kids around and explored all day. At night, they came home to their family, and either slept on a porch or in the house, if they were allowed inside.
One of my favorite memories of our family dog, Lady, is that she loved to lay in the middle of the road for an afternoon nap! We lived on a corner, and the roads were built of rock and tar, so the afternoon sun warmed them up quite nicely. Lady enjoyed the warmth from the road and sleeping in a nice sunny place, and she often took her naps there. The kind folks in our town just drove around her if she left them room, or honked to make her move if they didn’t have room to get around her. They all knew that Lady liked to nap in the road, and it was no big deal. It was small town living at its finest, and when I think back on those days I have to smile at the kindness of our neighbors!
These old dog tags just fascinate me! I try to imagine the dogs that proudly wore them! It’s impossible to know anything about the dogs, but the fact that the tags survived all of these years tells me volumes anyway. My parents would have thrown out the old tag when the new one was issued, so it’s hard to imagine why the old tag would have been kept, unless it was for sentimental reasons.
Being a little sentimental myself, I like to keep little tokens like this. They don’t take up much physical space, but they take up lots of room in my heart. Looking at a dog tag makes me remember the life of a dog who held a place of honor and importance in my heart. Long after my dogs run across the Rainbow Bridge, these little tokens of their lives matter. They prove to me that my dog really did live, and breathe, and play and shed their fur all over my house!
In a day and age where animals in general didn’t have the value placed upon them that we see today, these small tokens from one family are so very special to me! For these tags to have been saved from one year to the next, I have to think that this family loved their dogs, and wanted something to remember about them. I want to think that they were crazy in love with their dogs, just as I am about my little Rugby James. In my heart of hearts, I hope that the dogs’ owners would smile knowing that these small tokens of their dogs’ lives have ended up in the hands of a dog trainer who is crazy about dogs too. It’s a fitting end, and a sweet remembrance that their dogs mattered and have not been forgotten.