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Treasure Tags: Hunting for Rare and Unique Vintage Dog Tags

January 20, 2024 10 min read

Vintage Dog Tags

History of Dog Tags

Dog tags have a long history of military use for identification purposes. The origins of dog tags can be traced back to the Roman Empire, when Roman soldiers wore metal disks bearing their name and legion around their necks. While early tags were made of various materials like wood, bone, and metal, by the 19th century standardized metal identity discs became common issue in militaries around the world.

The United States military began utilizing identity tags at the start of the Civil War in the 1860s. Early American dog tags were made of brass or lead and stamped or engraved with the soldier's name and unit. The shape and material evolved over time, transitioning to oval aluminum or steel tags by World War I. The tag design featured two halves, one tag to remain with the deceased soldier and one tag for record keeping purposes if killed in action. This two-tag format allowed for quick identification and burial of soldiers in wartime.

It wasn't until just before World War II in 1941 that the U.S. military made dog tags mandatory for all personnel. Up to this point, some branches like the Marine Corps had issued tags selectively beginning in 1920. Mass wartime enlistment and mobilization led to the need for standard identification tags for all military members. Modern stainless steel dog tags were widely manufactured, featuring the essential information laser printed or engraved on each tag. The basic format of name, service number, blood type, and religious affiliation has remained largely unchanged since WWII-era dog tags.

Vintage Military Dog Tags

Military dog tags have a long and storied history dating back over 150 years. Authentic antique and vintage examples offer a tangible connection to the soldiers and sailors who served in conflicts ranging from the Civil War through Vietnam and beyond.

Stylistically, vintage military dog tags capture the trends and designs of their era. Earlier examples from the late 1800s into WWI were often thin stamped metal discs worn around the neck. As wars progressed, new standards emerged including engraved IDs, notched tags, and chain links connecting multiple tags.

WWII dog tags represent a high point of diversity in materials, styles, and engravings. Soldiers and sailors had access to an array of tag options from stainless steel to fiberboard and plastic. Tag shapes evolved as well, shifting from round discs to rectangular tags with rounded corners. And engravings reflected every theater and major campaign of the war.

The patina and wear patterns on vintage dog tags tell a story of their own. Antique Civil War examples may show verdigris and corrosion. WWIItags often have scratches, dings, and staining consistent with heavy use and combat conditions. Later Vietnam tags can exhibit fading to the engraved letters as well as discoloration from humidity and jungle environments.

Every vintage military dog tag has a history worth discovering and preserving. From the rarest Civil War relics to common WWII and Vietnam tags, each represents personal service and sacrifice. Collectors should handle genuine vintage examples with care to protect our military heritage.

Antique and Vintage Materials

Dog tags have been made from various metals throughout history depending on availability and cost. The earliest vintage military dog tags were often made of pure tin or tin plate. Tin was inexpensive and abundant, though susceptible to damage and corrosion over time.

Antique tags from World Wars I and II frequently used tin, aluminum, or a combination. The thin aluminum or tin tags could be stamped with soldier information and mass produced. Some tags combined tin and fiberboard. Fiberboard holds up well but lacks the glossy imprinted surface of metal tags.

By the Korean War and Vietnam War eras, stainless steel became more common for dog tags. Stainless steel provides durability while resisting rust and corrosion. Modern dog tags follow the stainless steel tradition.

Examining the metal surface and texture helps date antique dog tags. Tin and aluminum tags often show signs of aging like scratches, dullness, small dents, and corrosion especially along the edges. Stainless steel may pick up some surface scratches but generally has a smoother glossier appearance.

Antique dog tags can also display unique markings and stamps depending on the time period and manufacturer. Often the manufacturer name or initials appear, and the metal gauge or thickness might be noted. Extra words like "Ships on" were sometimes included on vintage tags.

The most character comes from wear and aging on genuine antique dog tags. Gently polishing and cleaning will reveal the engraved text and patterns while preserving the nostalgic patina of real vintage materials. Small dings and dents add charm and make each antique tag unique.

Rare and Unique Dog Tags

Dog tags have followed soldiers into every major military conflict, evolving in design and purpose over the decades. While standard-issue tags are plentiful, specially customized and rare examples stand out among collections.

Luxury engraved tags were popular among soldiers in World War I, made of sterling silver and gold and often featuring ornate designs and details. These were usually privately purchased by the soldiers themselves. Identification discs given to pilots and aircrews could be made of bone or bakelite.

Some rare World War II dog tags were made of plastic or vinyl, which was experimental at the time. These tend to be fragile. Soldiers who were taken as prisoners of war sometimes fashioned their own homemade dog tags from scrap materials. These improvised tags are unique artifacts.

There are also examples of dog tags that were hand-etched by soldiers in the field. These scrimshaw style tags feature images or designs scratched into the surface, adding artistic flair. Tag designs that indicate service in specialized units or battlefield roles like paratrooper, medic, or sharpshooter are also less common.

A few exceptionally rare dog tags have surfaced that were made by the Enemy Alien Registration program, used to track immigrants from Axis countries during World War II. These examples can fetch high prices from collectors.

Whether specially made or improvised, rare dog tags offer a unique window into individual experiences throughout military history. From hometown details to special unit insignia, their designs tell personal stories. For collectors, discovering a particularly uncommon tag can be an exciting find.

Restoring and Preserving Vintage Dog Tags

Vintage dog tags often show signs of age and wear from decades of use and handling. Proper restoration and preservation is key to maintaining their historic charm.

When cleaning vintage dog tags, avoid abrasive materials that could scratch the surface. A soft toothbrush and mild soap and water solution work well to gently remove dirt and grime. For polishing, use a jewelry polishing cloth or very fine grit wet/dry sandpaper. Take care not to remove too much of the patina and original finish.

For dog tags with bent corners or other damage, carefully bend or flatten using pliers padded with cloth. Don't force into shape to avoid cracking or breaks. If a tag has separated into pieces, they can be reattached with quick-set epoxy designed for metal.

Proper storage and display helps preserve vintage dog tags for future generations. Keep tags in a dry environment away from humidity to prevent corrosion. Store in acid-free envelopes or sleeves to avoid direct handling. Display in secure frames under glass or plexiglass. Mounting on acid-free boards or mats works for temporary exhibits. Handle gently and as little as possible to prevent further wear.

With some restoration care and thoughtful preservation methods, vintage dog tags can be kept safe for years to come. Their unique histories remain intact while still being accessible to enthusiasts and collectors.

Dog Tags as Collectibles

Due to their small size and durability, dog tags have long been collected by military enthusiasts and history buffs. Some collectors specifically seek antique or vintage dog tags from particular eras, units, or nationalities. Others take a broader approach and collect interesting examples from across different time periods. As collectibles, their value depends on factors like rarity, condition, materials, design details, markings, provenance, and historical significance.

Notable private collectors and museums have built extensive exhibitions of military dog tags over the years. The Pritzker Military Museum in Chicago has thousands of dog tags on display. Dutch military collector Leo van Ginderen showcases over 20,000 tags at the Mobilization Museum in Heerlen, Netherlands. The National Museum of the Marine Corps also exhibits a large dog tag collection.

Dog tag collectors can connect at events like military memorabilia shows. The largest events are held annually in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois. Collectors display their finds, meet fellow enthusiasts, buy and sell dog tags, and get appraisals from experts. Smaller regional shows also provide opportunities for collectors to expand their collections. Online groups and forums offer additional ways for dog tag enthusiasts to connect year-round.

Overall, the history and individuality represented in each vintage military tag continues to drive collector interest. Rarity, condition and special markings determine the value of individual pieces. For enthusiasts, building a diverse collection allows them to hold onto a tangible piece of history.

Using Vintage Designs

Vintage dog tags offer a treasure trove of design inspiration. Their classic styles and engraved graphics can be replicated or reimagined for custom dog tags, jewelry, clothing, craft projects, and more.

Custom Tags Made with Vintage Styles

Vintage military dog tags featured simple engraving styles that can be adapted for custom dog tags today. Recreate an antique look by mimicking the font styles, abbreviations, layouts, shapes, and sizes of vintage tags. Some ideas include:

  • Using a classic san serif font like Helvetica for a clean engraved look
  • Adding an ID tag number and branch abbreviation as on old military tags
  • Shaping the tag like an antique oval or bone-shaped tag
  • Engraving with title case lettering and punctuation like vintage styles
  • Keeping words and info minimal as on vintage examples
  • Using an antique patina finish or distressing for an old look

Taking vintage inspiration allows custom dog tags to have a cool retro vibe.

Vintage-Inspired Jewelry and Fashion

Antique dog tags make great pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and other jewelry. Their masculine military style adds edge and interest to jewelry designs. Tag shapes, fonts, and engraving can provide inspiration for custom jewelry pieces.

In fashion, visible necklace dog tags or bracelets with tags tap into military fashion trends. Designers also integrate dog tag shapes and hardware into clothing. Screen printing or embossing tag designs onto t-shirts and jackets is another way vintage dog tags inspire fashion.

Crafts Using Antique Dog Tags

The DIY community finds creative ways to integrate antique dog tags into craft projects. Engraved tags can be strung into unique wind chimes. Old dog tags can be stamped and inked to make imprints on cards and scrapbook pages. Drilling holes in worn vintage tags allows them to be laced onto garlands, sashes, bookmarks, keychains, and more.

With some imagination, antique dog tags can become Christmas ornaments, game pieces, coasters, wall art, mosaics, curtain tiebacks, and part of many other craft creations. Their classic vibe and nostalgic feel make them perfect for adding cool touches.

Vintage dog tags offer no shortage of design inspiration with their classic engraving styles, shapes, and military vibe. Craft makers, jewelry designers, and fashion brands can all draw on the look of antique tags to produce new items with an instant retro feel.

Sourcing Real Vintage Tags

When building a vintage dog tag collection, it's important to source authentic pieces. There are a few ways to identify real vintage dog tags:

  • Examine materials and engraving styles. Real vintage tags will show appropriate wear and patina for their age. Machine engraved or acid etched lettering in period-appropriate fonts are good signs. Reproductions often have modern engraving.

  • Look for verifiable provenance. Getting dog tags from trustworthy antique dealers who can vouch for their age is ideal. Auction houses with experts who authenticate items are another option. Receipts, appraisals, and documentation help prove authenticity.

  • Learn to spot fakes. Some reproductions are designed to mimic antique dog tags. Look closely at finishes, markings, wear patterns, fonts, and designs. Compare to verified real examples. Modern materials and methods are giveaways.

The best places to find authentic vintage dog tags include:

  • Specialty antique stores, especially military antiques dealers. They source and verify vintage items.

  • Collectible shows and fairs. These bring together many antique sellers in one place.

  • Estate sales and auctions. You may find dog tags alongside other antiques. Confirm age before purchasing.

  • Online auctions through reputable sites. Read seller reviews and ask about provenance.

  • Collector forums and groups. Networking may uncover vintage tags for sale.

With care and research, you can find genuine vintage dog tags from eras past for your collection. Avoiding cheap knock-offs is key to sourcing the real deal.

Notable Dog Tag Brands

Some of the most collectible and desirable vintage dog tags came from notable manufacturers that specialized in dog tags and military accessories. Knowing the history and marks of these brands can help collectors identify and authenticate vintage pieces.

The K&H Manufacturing Company, founded in the early 1900s, was one of the earliest and most prominent producers of military dog tags. Based in New York, they held contracts with the U.S. military and produced dog tags for World Wars I and II. Their tags often featured patented designs and the company name stamped on the rim. K&H tags from WWI and earlier are extremely rare and valuable.

J.A. Meyer of New York was another important early dog tag maker from the 1910s-1930s. Meyer tags featured distinctive designs like the "button hole" metal tab at top. Collectors admire the ornate engraving fonts on vintage Meyer tags. Marks include "J.A. Meyer" and "N.Y."

During WWII, major manufacturers of dog tags for U.S. forces included Talon, Rex, and Boyd Welding Company. Talon is recognized by its zipper-pull style tag with Talon name across the front. Boyd tags have an oval shape with distinctive stamping style. Rex produced an embossed aluminum tag stamped "REX" above the hole.

These vintage manufacturers helped define the dog tag in its now-familiar form. Their early 20th century tags are the most coveted, but WWII era tags also hold appeal for collectors and history buffs. Study vintage marks and designs to identify prized manufacturer tags.

Documenting and Cataloging Your Vintage Dog Tags

Documenting and cataloging your vintage dog tag collection takes time and effort, but yields rewarding results. Proper documentation preserves the history behind each tag and enables you to create an organized archive that's easily searchable.

When cataloging your dog tags, record as many details as possible, such as the name, military branch, service dates, manufacturer details, style, material, condition, etc. Research the service member, manufacturer, and time period of each tag to uncover its unique story.

Photograph each side of your dog tags, capturing any text, markings, patina, damage, etc. Take close-ups of any distinctive features. Save the photos in a digital archive, and be sure to back it up. Include the catalog details in the file name or embedded metadata to make the images searchable.

Store your physical collection in archival materials, like acid-free boxes, tissue paper, polyethylene bags, etc. Group together dog tags of similar eras or styles. Label all containers clearly. Maintaining organized storage allows you to locate specific items easily.

Building a well-cataloged archive not only documents your personal collection, but also contributes to preserving dog tag history. Your archive can serve as a valuable reference that helps collectors identify and appreciate these artifacts. Approaching documenting with care and consistency creates a treasure trove of searchable information and images that can be passed down to future generations.

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