Can a dog act as a good luck charm? American railway mail clerks certainly thought so! In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the best good luck charm available to anyone working in the mail car on trains was Owney the traveling dog.
Owney was a small-medium sized terrier mix that guarded and traveled with the mail across the entire world. He eventually became the mascot of the Railway Mail Clerks and, just this past year, earned his place on a Forever Stamp!
Today Owney lives on at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, where his body has been preserved and numerous historical artifacts about him are on display or in storage. Owney is an odd little dog, though, because despite everything we do know about him, we’re not 100% sure where he got his start as a traveler – or what kind of dog he actually was.
Eric Blasco, a programs coordinator at the Smithsonian, explained that while the DNA in the body of Owney could be tested, people are more interested in analyzing the artifacts surrounding the little dog, and researchers have focused on the vast number of newspaper articles written about Owney. Relatively recently, the team even declared that while Owney was once believed to be a stray that hopped onto a train, he probably belonged to an unknown postal employee. One day, the employee just disappeared. Why this happened is a mystery.
But little Owney carried on in a time when the mail was carried between train stations and post offices via wagons. Owney probably started by riding the mail wagon around town, until he followed the mail a bit further than usual and hopped onto a train. And while plenty of other dogs rode in mail trains that went back and forth between a town or two, Owney was different. Owney began traveling further and further from home, until he became a national sensation. Newspaper articles literally tracked his progress across the country and, eventually, the world.
Interestingly enough, though, photographs of Owney weren’t all that common. Often, illustrators working with the newspapers would create an image of Owney based on what people told them. So some images that appeared of Owney, looked nothing like the dog!
Another curious thing about Owney was how he was presented to the public. Erin explains that while news articles portrayed Owney as an independent dog without owners who went where he pleased, they also published where he was traveling next.
“It was obvious people were taking care of and directing the dog,” Erin said. “I think people wanted Owney to be an example of the adventuring American spirit, so they played up the romantic angle quite a bit.”
And it worked. Owney was easily recognized in any town or city he visited – and because of this, people found a way to connect themselves with him: tags. Owney collected over 400 metal tags during his lifetime, and only a handful of these were from dog shows (where, since he couldn’t win many competitions as a mutt, the hosts make up prizes for him, such as the Best Traveled Dog).
Why? This was a time when people just carried metal tags. They were a kind of I.D. system and included basic information like a name or address. So, people would hook their tags onto a harness that Owney wore. According to Erin, it was just a way to prove that they met him.
And businesses took advantage of this, too. Thanks to the harness, Owney was a very recognizable dog, and he even became a noisy walking billboard as business owners attached tags and coins advertising special deals at local businesses. Professionals actually attached tags that welcomed Owney into their special clubs, too.
Most of all, the railway and mail clerks adored Owney and considered him good luck. Train wrecks in the late 1800s were common, and a railway clerk lived an extremely dangerous life as he sorted the mail on trains. Mail cars were often near the front of the train; if the train wrecked, the car was usually completely destroyed. If the train didn’t wreck, clerks had to be careful not to set the wooden cars (filled with paper) alight with their lanterns.
But a train never wrecked while Owney was on board, which the clerks took as a sign.
“I think they saw the dog as on their side,” Erin said. “He was a mascot and protector. He was also known for protecting mail. He stayed with mailbags that fell off and wouldn’t let anyone but postal workers touch them. He embodied protection for these men and their job.”
Owney has stayed popular and famous through time. Children’s books teach children about American history through his eyes. eBooks and Phone apps mean people can interact with him in the digital age. He also has a Facebook and Twitter feed that update people about where he went and what the Smithsonian is doing with his exhibit. The Smithsonian even held a Look-a-Like contest for the public to take part in!
His story is definitely a fairy tale come true that just captures our imaginations. What is more adorable, romantic, and fantastic than a dog riding a train across the world, guarding the people who took him in?
by Larissa Gula
all photogrpahs courtesy of teh Smithsonian National Postal Museum