Nineteenth-Century Dog Tags ... for Civilians

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 13 2013 1:00 PM

Nineteenth-Century Dog Tags ... for Civilians

This identification check, issued to Midwesterner Frank Novak in 1896, was a forerunner of the present-day military dog tag. In a time before drivers' licenses and social security numbers, personal identification was haphazard—a gap this tag would fill.

If something were to happen to the bearer while away from friends and family, and she or he were rendered unconscious or incapacitated, those present could contact the issuing company by telegram; the company would then alert loved ones. Novak paid the Standard Registry Company a dollar a year for this service.

The military dog tag became standard issue in the early-20th century, after the patchwork system of ID used during the Civil War left many war dead unidentified. In that conflict, some soldiers did wear tags, but it was a matter of personal choice. Insurance companies seized upon the idea in the late nineteenth century, offering civilians ID on the free market.

Advertisement

Life insurance companies, which proliferated after the Civil War, sometimes issued badges that, unlike Novak’s, carried benefits. A payment for bearers killed while using a “public conveyance” was popular. Registry companies like the one that issued Novak’s tag also offered their services to people looking to keep tabs on valuable items, such as keys. If keys bearing an ID check were found separated from their owners, a telegram to the company would reconnect the two.

Frank Novak and this identification check were at the center of a sensational true-crime news story, after Novak’s general store in Walford, Iowa burned down in 1897. As author Peter Kaufman writes in his book Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America, Novak was known to wear this badge clipped to his suspenders at all times.

When the tag was found near human remains in the ruin of the store, it was initially assumed that Novak had perished in the fire. (The tag likely has the fire to thank for its tarnished and battered appearance.)

Later investigations found that Novak faked his own death, and planned to start a new life fueled by riches gained in the Klondike Gold Rush. 

RegistryCompanyCheck

Photo courtesy of Mossman Law Firm.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.