Refresher Course

Postal history boot camp: cover collecting terms and basics

By Rick Miller


While there is more to postal history than just covers, covers are the basis of postal history.

Figure 1. An advertising cover for Champion Embalming Fluid mailed from Springfield, Ohio, to Fall River, Mass., on Aug. 6, 1896. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 2. The back of the cover shown in Figure 1 bears a Fall River, Mass., Aug. 8, 1896, receiving postmark. Click on image to enlarge.

Most cover collectors started out as stamp collectors. When stamp collectors expand or shift their collecting emphasis to covers, a whole new lexicon of collecting terms comes into play.

A cover is an envelope or card, usually one that has been mailed. Folded letters that were addressed and mailed without an envelope and the wrappers from mailed newspapers or parcels are also covers.

A front is the address side of a cover that has been detached from the rest of the envelope. It is always better to save the entire cover, but some older covers exist only as fronts. Sometimes collectors cut down large parcel wrappers and save just the front, being careful to preserve all the postal markings and stamps on the retained piece.

The envelope shown in Figure 1 is a cover. It was mailed from Springfield, Ohio, to Fall River, Mass., on Aug. 6, 1896.

The cover is franked with a 2¢ George Washington stamp (Scott 252). To frank is to affix a stamp or marking to a mailpiece to indicate payment of or exemption from payment of postage.

The stamp is tied to the cover by a cancellation. When a cancellation extends unbroken across both the stamp and the surrounding paper of the cover, it is said to tie the stamp to the cover, thereby showing that the stamp was present on the envelope when the cancellation was applied.

A cancellation is a mark placed on a stamp by a postal authority to deface the stamp and prevent it from being reused.

There are two parts to the cancellation on the cover shown in Figure 1.

To the left is the postmark, which gives the date and place where the cancellation was applied. In the past, the postmark was normally applied at the post office where the letter was originally mailed. Nowadays most cancellations, especially in the United States, are applied at regional processing facilities.

To the right are killer bars. These are lines or bars that cancel the stamp. Most killer bars are horizontal in relation to the postmark, but the killer bars in this cancellation are diagonal. The numeral "1" in the killer bars was used to identify the position or machine applying the cancellation.

A postmark can also serve as a cancellation, when it is applied directly to the stamp. Cancellations that do not include a postmark with the date and place of mailing are called mute cancels.

There are manuscript, machine and handstamp cancellations.

Manuscript cancellations are handwritten with a pen or marker.

Machine cancellations, such as the one on the cover shown in Figure 1, are applied by a canceling machine that applies the postmark and the cancel from changeable dies indicating the date and place of mailing.

A handstamp is a hand-held device used to apply a cancellation or a postmark. When both the cancellation and postmark are held by the same device, it is called a duplex cancel.

The receiving postmark on the back of the cover, shown in Figure 2, was applied by a handstamp. The Fall River, Mass., Aug. 8, 1896, receiving postmark shows that the cover arrived at the delivery post office two days after it was mailed.

These days, most U.S. postmarks and cancellations are sprayed on. Spray-on cancellations are applied by an ink jet machine that sprays the ink onto the cover in a preset pattern. Spray-on postmarks are usually much less clear and distinct than machine or handstamped cancellations.

The cover shown in Figure 1 is a commercial cover. A commercial cover is loosely defined as any cover that is not a philatelic cover. It could contain correspondence from or to a business firm or government office, or a letter from one private party to another. A philatelic cover is one that is created by or for collectors.

Postal history collectors usually prize commercial covers as genuine postal history, but disdain philatelic covers as being collector contrived. The distinction between commercial and philatelic often blurs. For example, is a business cover mailed from a stamp dealer to a collecting customer commercial or philatelic?

The cover shown in Figure 1 is an advertising cover. The front of the cover is used to advertise commercial products produced by the Champion Chemical Co.

Chief among these is Champion embalming fluid, which figures prominently in the corner card. A corner card is the printed name and address of the sender. Corner cards can run the gamut from plain to elaborately illustrated.

Other products featured in the corner card are Champion Arrow embalming needles and burglar-proof grave vaults.

The address subtext advertisements tout other products: the Champion grip of instruments and Champion folding pedestals. Address subtext advertisements are lines of small type that serve as guidelines above which the address is written.

The Champion hard rubber pump is advertised in a printed line at lower left, while a line of printing in red runs diagonally between the corner card and the address, inviting the customer to send for the illustrated catalog of embalming instruments and supplies.

There are a number of auxiliary markings on the front of the cover. Auxiliary markings are markings on the cover that provide additional information to facilitate delivery, or which require action on the part of the mailer, addressee, or both.

One is a "General Delivery" manuscript notation at the lower left of the cover. Manuscript notations are handwritten auxiliary markings.

General delivery was a service whereby recipients could go to the post office and pick up their mail, rather than having it delivered to an address. It was often used to send mail to travellers who were expected to be passing through a given location, and who would call at the post office to pick up any mail that might have been sent to them there.

Another auxiliary marking, a "General Delivery, AUG 8 1896 Fall River Mass" handstamp in purple ink, is applied below the cancellation and stamp, upside down in relation to the cover. Part of this marking also ties the stamp to the cover. Another auxiliary marking, a small bisected circle "GD/1" handstamp, is just below the larger general delivery handstamp.

The end of the story of this piece of postal history comes from the manuscript notation written along the left edge of the cover front, "Rec'd Fri., Aug. 21 '96." The addressee evidently called for his mail at the post office on that date and received this letter.