Historical Landmark of the Month (February, Part II): Owney

Since the story of Stubby, the original canine war hero, was so warmly received, I thought people might enjoy another story in the same realm. It's not quite as heart-warming as Stubby, but interesting and historically accurate. It's about Owney, the globe-trotting mascot of
the United States Postal Service.


Owney, born sometime in the late 1880's, was a stray mixed-breed terrier adopted as a mascot by the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. Postal workers in the Albany office found the abandoned puppy asleep on some empty mail bags. The puppy really took comfort in the mail bags, maybe it was the smell or the texture of the heavy canvas, but he was never really satisfied until he was curled up on a mail bag.

Owney and his mail bags

At some point in time, Owney started riding the rails with the USPS's Railway Mail Service. (Historical note: The Railway Mail Service (RMS) carried the vast majority of letters and packages mailed in the United States from the 1890s until the 1960s.) For another unknown reason, Owney loved to ride the trains. His trips became longer and longer, and
the postal clerks at Albany became concerned that the dog might get lost. They bought Owney a collar with a metal tag that read: "Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York". Railway clerks also took a liking to Owney, and began to mark his travels with small, metal tags. The
National Postal Museum (in Washington, DC, right next door to Union Station) has a collection of 1,017 metal tags that belonged to Owney. (You can see an on-line collection of some of Owney’s tags here.)

On April 9, 1894, a writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that "Nearly every place he stopped Owney received an additional tag, until now he wears a big bunch. When he jogs along, they jingle like the bells on a junk wagon." When Postmaster General John Wanamaker learned that the dog's collar was weighed down by an ever-growing number of tags, his wife made Owney a “jacket” on which to display the "trophies."

Owney and the men of Railcar #99

Owney became a celebrity and newspapers around the country chronicled his adventures. As Owney travelled across the country, he made appearances at a number of diverse places: the 1892 Republican convention in Buffalo, greeting participants at a bankers' convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa and a surprise arrival at a Poultry Association event in Tacoma, Wash. Here's a random blurb published in the New York Times on an unknown date:

Owney and an unidentified Postal Worker

On September 19, 1894, the Columbus Dispatch published the following three paragraphs in the paper:

"Owney, the famous mail dog, arrived in Columbus today from Athens, over the Toledo & Ohio Central, where he has been spending a few days. Owney is one of the most widely known dogs in the United States. For the past eight or ten years he has traveled constantly and always in mail cars.

Twice has he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and both times he persisted in riding with the mail clerks.

He has been over every railroad in the United States and will ride only with mail clerks, all of whom know him, feed and care for him. The dog's neck is freighted with medals given by admirers in all parts of the country. Owney is a fox terrier and originally came from Albany, New York, which he makes his headquarters. Several years ago in a wreck in Canada the dog had the sight of his right eye destroyed."

(The claim of Owney losing his vision in one eye couldn't be substantiated by additional resources.)

In 1895, Owney went on his longest journey, a 14,000 mile, 132-day trip around the world on trains and steamships, with stops in Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, Suez, Algiers, Europe, and the Azores, New York, and then back to Tacoma, Washington, where the trip began, to be greeted by cheering crowds. Owney had become so popular that the New York Times published a small column about his return to America:

Owney and his vest

But his proudest moment was probably his appearance at the convention of the National Association of Railway Clerks in San Francisco, where, according to the National Postal Museum, the clerks who had taken care of him on his journeys gave him a rousing fifteen minute ovation, and "cheered, clapped, and whistled for their faithful four-legged friend."

Owney retired from the Railway Mail Service in 1897 due to poor eyesight and old age. However, as a well-traveled dog he had a serious case of wanderlust and was difficult to contain.

Owney slipped out of the Albany post office in June 1897 and took one final trip. Details regarding his death are sketchy and unclear, but he passed away in Toledo, Ohio on July 11, 1897.

Here's a closer look at some of Owney's tags:

Presented to "His Dogship" on April 20, 1892 from the Baltimore and Grafton Railway Post Office (RPO) car

Tag presented during a visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 27, 1895.
Tag presented to Owney during a visit to Mankato, Minnesota on June 17, 1895.

Tag presented to "Owney the Globe Trotter"; Unknown origin.

Tag presented to Owney from the Travelers Insurance Company, Chicago, Illinois.

A medal given to Owney at the annual Postal Convention on April 19, 1892 in Baltimore, Maryland.

A statue of Owney on display at the National Postal Museum; Washington, DC.

Mail clerks raised money to have him stuffed and put on display in a glass case -- first at Post Office Headquarters in Washington, DC; then at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He travelled around some after that, but wound up at the new National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. He can still be seen there today, wearing his small doggy vest bristling with some of the medals and tags that he accumulated in his travels. Next time you are in town, check him out.

Owney's permanent home.
Owney might not be as famous as Stubby, but he had at least two children's book written about him. You can read it on-line here:
For you visual learners, here's a short video that tells Owney's story (it's about 3 minutes long).


Denise said...

a dog spinner, really, aren't you cat people. moses would be disappointed if she knew about these posts.

Deborah said...

Holy crap - That is ACTUALLY Owney - stuffed and in a display case.

I love all these historical dog posts. Keep 'em coming!