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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

A Brief History of Dog Tags in the Military

During the Civil War, American service members worried how their bodies would be properly identified if they were killed in action, a fair concern, considering more than 40% of the Civil War dead remain unidentified.

To ease their minds, some soldiers tattooed their epitaphs on their bodies, while others made personalized dog tags out of paper or stitched them onto clothing. These identification symbols were also fashioned into coins or carved into wood chunks and hung around their necks. It was their way to assist the living when no official process was in place.

The unofficial practice took some time to gain traction, and although the identification method is popularly known as “dog tags” these days, the term wasn’t coined until at least 1936. The nickname stems from a matter that doesn’t even involve the military. William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate and yellow journalism pioneer, published an article in an attempt to undermine support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst heard about a proposal for the newly formed Social Security Administration to give out nameplates for personal identification — adding all workers would receive treatment as if they were dogs, and private information would no longer be confidential. He called these identification plates “dog tags.”

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