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.
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.