What’s in a Collection? Dog Tags

What’s in a Collection? Dog Tags

Personal identification tags or commonly referred to as dog tags are an object that most of us are familiar with maybe seeing them in movies or first hand from a family member.  They were issued as part of the military uniform, but continued to serve as personal keepsake for family members.  The tags primary function was to be used for the identification of fallen and wounded soldiers.  These tags varied through time in style, but always had personal information about the individual.  However, the history of military identification tags is quite old, and not unique to United States.  The Imperial Roman army utilized identification tags for legionaries.  In the Roman army, recruits would enter into service starting off in a training phase similar to what we would consider boot camp.  If a potential soldier passed all the physical and medical requirements, they were presented with an object called a signaculum.  The signaculum was a pendant-like object made out of lead and was to be worn around their neck.  The signaculum would have their name etched on it as well as other information like legion they belonged to and start date of service.  At the same time they were presented with this, they also were to swear a military oath of service.

In the United States, forms of military personal identification can be traced to the Civil War.  Soldiers started pinning tags inside coats with important information about themselves.  At the time, badge manufactures attempted to meet this need.  They would sell pins with the soldiers name and unit engraved on it, and even made proposals to the US government to provide uniform identification discs.  It was not until the early 20th century that the army recognized the importance and began to issue personal identification tags.  During World War I dual tags were issued for field combat with additional information that included a serial number, name and occasional medical alerts stamped on the tag.

In our collection we have a set of dog tags from the Pierson collection dating from World War II.  This set, as seen in the images, is more oval in shape and might not be what first comes to mind as military identification tag. During the latter part of WWII, these tags were made of brass or stainless steel.  Prior to this, a specialized metal (referred to as Monel) high in nickel content was used.  In first half of the 20th century some branches of the military only issued dog tags during times of war.  It was not until the latter half that they became standard issue.  During WWII the US Navy, as well as the US Coast Guard, made this a standard issue item.  They also made additions to the type of information recorded.  This identification tag would include the individual’s name, service number and branch of service.  As we look at this tag, Mr. Pierson was in the US Coast Guard Reserve (USGGR).  They also included pertinent medical information that could obviously be very important in a combat situation.  As seen in the image, the tag included blood type information and if the person had been vaccinated for tetanus (show by the “T”) as well as when they received that tetanus shot (in this case September 1942).  Since there was not a standard set for all branches of the armed service during the war; the tags and information would vary, for instance, the USN would also include a fingerprint that was etched on the reverse side of each tag.  Etching the fingerprint was an interesting process involving ink, fine mineral powder, heating the tag, and a final stage that included a bath in acids and water.  Putting fingerprints on tags was discontinued during the war, one can image this extensive process could have been part of the reason.







A set of USCGR issued dog tags that belonged to Donald Pierson


Reverse side of the USCGR dog tags

Another interesting aspect with some identification tags was their use with field paperwork.  During World War II the US Army issued more rectangular shaped tags that featured a notch at one end.  These dog tags were unitized in the field with a device referred to as an Addressograph Model 70.  This addressograph was a hand held device that imprinted information from the dog tag onto documents.  The device had a rubber pad and a ribbon so that the imprinted information from the tag could be transferred to paperwork.  Think of it like a label maker meets the early carbon copy credit card devices.  The notch on the tag ensured properly alignment when used with the addressograph.  The idea was that the tag could be used for paperwork reducing the potential for error.  These types of addressographs were primarily used by the medical departments.  The success of these devices was relatively short-lived and limited as field conditions (particularly dirt) caused problems with their usage.

An example of a WWII Army issued dog tag with notch

By the late 1950s, the US military made consistent identification tags a standard issue for all armed services.  Though these objects are small they very fascinating for some, their durable construction and other attributes lead to the eventually transformation into a fashion accessory for civilians.  These historical artifacts served an important function for the military operations and service, however, they continued to function as symbols of the fallen, and remembrance of the past.

Jason Titcomb is the Chief Curator for the St Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.  He holds a graduate degree in anthropology from Iowa State University.

WWII Era Maintenance Garage Restoration

On April 5th, the World War II-era garage here on the light station was raised by professional house movers. As part of restoring and maintaining our historic campus, the building will be converted for use as WWII Coast Guard exhibit space and for the Museum’s café. For years, soil built up around the foundation, causing moisture and termite problems that almost completely destroyed the original structural fabric. In 2008, the Museum completed some internal work to sure-up the back wall and installed a new shingle roof using replica 1940s green asphalt shingles. The 2016 work goes far deeper into the structure and it will be made as good as new by the time it re-opens to the public later this year.

The building will sit upon a new foundation slab, approximately one foot higher than the old foundation. This will prevent soil buildup and ensure the integrity of the structure for years to come. After the new foundation is poured, and utilities are installed, the moving company will lower the building onto its new home. There is a lot going on here at the Lighthouse to create new opportunities for our visitors and members and better house our existing programs. You may have noticed the new maintenance building to the south of the Visitors’ Center and the new Maritime Archaeology and Education Center on the north end of the campus. Much of the construction should be done by the middle of the summer and we look forward to opening the new buildings, exhibits, and labs to our community and patrons. Follow our activity here on the blog, on Facebook, and by visiting with us here in beautiful St. Augustine!

Click below to see the video of the raising of the WWII-era Maintenance Garage!


Brendan Burke joined the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum in 2007 as an archaeologist for the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program. He holds a graduate degree in Anthropology from The College of William & Mary.

Keepers of the Light

Keepers of the Light

Alphonso Daniels, 2nd Assistant Keeper, 1928 St. Augustine Lighthouse

When you think about lighthouse keepers, what comes to mind? Maybe it is long, lonely nights dutifully keeping the lamps burning for ships unseen. Alternatively, perhaps it is a long day spent painting the lighthouse tower. Lighthouse keeping meant a hard life, especially as we think about it today. Who do you imagine did these tasks?

During the lighthouse boom of the 19th century, jobs requiring a rugged self-reliance would have been male dominated endeavors. While both sexes had worked equally hard on the frontier during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution cemented for the next 200-years western views of men’s role as the worker and women’s role in the house. The Lighthouse Service was no exception to this rule. Even though entire families worked from dawn until dusk at light stations across the country, males made up the overwhelming majority of government appointed lighthouse keepers, who received pay for the work they performed.

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Volunteers Give Over Half a Million Dollars in Donated Services to the Museum

Volunteers from the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum donated over 21,000 hours in 2016 to help with maritime research, building and artifact preservation, improving the visitor experience and teaching others at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, Inc.


Volunteers are the heart of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, and on Thursday, March 9, the Museum had the chance to honor them. Many of their dedicated volunteers and staff gathered at the historic St. Francis Barracks Officer’s Club to celebrate the Lighthouse volunteers who donated over 21,000 hours in calendar year 2016.


Executive Director, Kathy A. Fleming opened the evening up by thanking the volunteers for all that they do for the Museum and assuring them “You are deeply loved.” Fleming then introduced Peter Spiller, Chairperson of the Board. Spiller congratulated the group for “making the organization stronger with their many talents and comprehensive experience.” Board Member Maury Kaiser was also in attendance, as were many other volunteer boat builders, docents, preservationists and conservation volunteers who give their time to teach children, clean the Museum, preserve the site, or work with underwater artifacts.


Volunteer & Events Manager Loni Wellman, gave a certificate to each volunteer calling out the hours donated individually. Katey Anderson represented the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, whose members still give 10 hours each, every year to the Lighthouse, a Legacy project of the league. Hours given are all appreciated and started with only 9 hours a person. Wellman and the staff offered a warm note of thanks and if wanted, a hug. The volunteer in attendance with the most hours given this year was William Mai with 440 hours. Any volunteer who gives over 40 hours receives a free Museum Membership. The Museum has 253 volunteers of all ages, and also works with corporate and school volunteer programs.

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According to the National Value of Volunteer Time, the number of hours contributed by St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum volunteers in 2016 has a cash value of $512,312.00, if the Museum were to pay for those same services. It is really much more than that for us, said Fleming. “You cannot replace the love and care and passion our volunteers bring to us for any amount of money.” Wellman added, “Volunteerism also brings wellness to people of all ages because it builds true friendships and a sense of community engagement.” She continued, “Lighthouse volunteers take part in many tasks at the Museum, from scientific diving on shipwrecks to leading tours around the historic site to helping in the office.  There is a job fit for everyone.” Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum can contact Loni Wellman at LWellman@staugustinelighthouse.org or (904) 829-0745, ext 213.

Conservation Around Site – Harpoon

People have hunted whales around the world for thousands of years, primarily for meat and blubber. In America, the practice really took off in the colonial 18th century and hit its peak in the mid-19th. The most lucrative product at this point was whale oil, derived from boiling down blubber or harvesting the head of sperm whales. As the American industry grew and expanded, so did the whaling practices and technology, which is where our conservation topic comes in today.

There is a harpoon that is part of an education collection in the oil house. While the whaling industry was never directly involved with the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, it was still a part of the lighthouse world. The refined whale oil was a highly sought after commodity used for lantern fuel and many lighthouses were lit in such a manner.

Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.
Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.

In order to get the whale oil, crews had to somehow hunt and harvest them. Early harpoons were made of wood, bone and stone. They were thrown or shot into the whale and attached to a floating object. The idea was to tire the whale out until the hunters could finish it off.  Eventually, as larger whale species were targeted, larger, deadlier and more durable harpoons were created. Our particular artifact is an interesting variation that became a gold-standard for harpoons. The style is referred to as a “standard improved toggle” harpoon. It is credited as being designed by Lewis Temple, a freed slave and blacksmith. He opened a shop in the whaling community of New Bedford around 1845 and his style became incredibly popular, partly because he never patented the design and since it was so effective. This does make it difficult to definitively identify our harpoon, though, as many manufacturers made and sold them.

Standard improved toggle head. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/TR_072824.html
Standard improved toggle head.

The small head is designed to cut and penetrate deep into the whale skin easily. The rear of the head has a sweeping barb that holds the harpoon in place. The ingenuity of Temple’s invention, though, is a pivot in the center of the head. When the harpoon is pulled back, the barb turns outward and rotates the head into a T-shape, locking it in. Another clever bit of engineering is the long, skinny shaft. The cast iron used in the harpoon is strong, but flexible, so that it can twist and bend after insertion and during the pursuit.

Bent toggle harpoon. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/AG_056237.html
Bent toggle harpoon.

The conservation for the harpoon was very easy and unobtrusive since the artifact does not actually belong to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. I did not want to add any chemicals or sealants that would be difficult for a future curator or conservator to remove, should the need arise.

Overall the condition of the metal was pretty good. There were a few spots here and there on the bare cast iron that showed signs of corrosion. These were exclusively on the head and base of the shaft. The paint on the shaft of the harpoon, however, looked good and did not need any treatment.

I started by carefully brushing off the rust and corrosion product from the iron using a toothbrush. For the more stubborn spots I used a small wire wheel and bit of steel mesh. When the metal was clean, I then covered the exposed parts with a light coat of air tool oil to penetrate and prevent additional oxidation. The oil has few additives that would strip the iron or gum up the surface while it dried. After the oil, I then sealed both ends of the harpoon using heated microcrystalline wax. The molten wax is able to seep into all the pores of the metal and seal the surfaces from exposure to the atmosphere.

Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.
Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.