The Border Terrier is a familiar breed to foxhunters, especially in the sheep farming districts of England and Scotland. They were bred on the English-Scottish Border to run with the foxhound packs. When the fox went to ground the Border Terrier would go in and bark so the men knew where to dig. But did you know that a Border Terrier named Owney was the first nationwide mascot of the United States Postal Service? Owney reigned for nine years, from 1887 to mid-1897, traveling over 140,000 miles throughout the forty-eight states and around the world.
Owney belonged to a clerk at the Albany post office who often brought the dog to work. He seemed to love the smell of mail bags and slept on them whenever he was there. The clerk eventually quit the post office, but knowing that the dog seemed happiest with the mail bags, he left him beind. The postal employees in Albany soon discovered that Owney didn’t want to leave the bags when they were loaded onto the trains, so he was allowed to travel with them.
Owney became a welcome visitor to the railway post offices down the line, and wouldn’t allow any person other than a postal employee to touch the bags. The dog was soon recognized as a faithful guardian of the mail, and his service was appreciated in the railway post offices east to Boston, south to New York City, and west to Chicago and beyond. Owney was welcomed at all the stations, petted, departed with the mail, and was sometimes not seen back for months.
As the trips grew longer, it was decided that Owney needed an ID tag, so he was fitted with a collar and tag that read, “Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York.” Railway post offices around the country started adding their own tags to the collar. Then medals were added…in Los Angeles and Chicago. The collection grew so large that U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker gave Owney a coat to which the tags and medals could be attached, and announced him to be the Official Mascot of the U.S. Rail Mail Service. As the tags became too weighty and cumbersome, they were removed, a few at a time, and sent to Albany or Washington, DC for safekeeping. A source states that 1,017 tags and medals were eventually bestowed on the little terrier. The National Postal Museum currently has 372 of Owney’s tags in its collection.
On one occasion, a mail pouch accidentally fell out of a wagon during a delivery route. Returning to the post office after deliveries, the mail bag was noted missing and so was Owney. They backtracked the route and eventually found the missing mail bag with Owney curled up on top.
On another trip, Owney wound up in Montreal, Canada. There, he was kept in a kennel by the postmaster, who sent a demand to Albany for reimbursement of $2.50 for his feed. The ransom was paid, and Owney returned home.
When the Universal Postal Union was created in 1874, Owney’s geographical horizons expanded. In 1895, Owney enjoyed a trip around the world. He rode with mail bags on trains and steamships starting in Tacoma, Washington on August 19. He traveled through Asia and across Europe before returning to New York City on December 23, thence to Albany—a Grand Tour lasting four months! He is said to have been awarded passports and medals by the Emperor of Japan, and his return to America was the subject of newspaper articles nationwide.
A postal clerk in Detroit was inspired to write a poem about the terrier:
Owney is a tramp, as you can plainly see.
Only treat him kindly, and take him ‘long wid ye.
As Owney aged, his continued travels became a questionable practice among some post offices, and the circumstances of his death are hazy. He was put down in Toledo, Ohio on June 11, 1897. His remains were sent for taxidermy and are now on exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, where, in 2011, Owney’s remains received a much-needed makeover.
On July 27, 2011, The USPS issued a Forever stamp honoring Owney. Click for more details and source material about Owney in Wikipedia. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has a short video on their website honoring the little terrier.
Posted September 19, 2018