Refresher Course

Collecting basics: a short history of postmarks and cancels

By Rick Miller


Collectors often use the terms postmark and cancellation interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same thing.

Figure 1. A United States 3¢ George Washington stamp (Scott 65) with a hatched-lines manuscript cancel.
Figure 2. A Niederuzwil, Switzerland, Sept. 23, 1944, bull's-eye cancel on a Swiss 20-centime Fokker Monoplane airmail stamp (Scott C38).
Figure 3. A March 11, 1901, Philadelphia, Pa., duplex cancel, shown photographically cropped from its cover.
Figure 4. The British "43" barred numeral killer on this British ½-penny Queen Victoria stamp indicates the Charing Cross post office in the London district.
Figure 5. A Canadian Feb. 26, 1899, machine flag cancellation from Hamilton, Ontario, shown photographically cropped.
Figure 6. A June 26, 1957, Oklahoma City, Okla., slogan cancel "Okla. Semi-Centennial Exposition June 14-July 7 Oklahoma City" shown cropped from cover.

A postmark is a postal marking applied to a cover to show the date and place of mailing. Postmarks actually predate both adhesive postage stamps and cancellations, as they are often found on old stampless covers mailed before the introduction of postage stamps.

A cancellation is a postal marking applied to a stamp to show that it has been used and is no longer valid for payment of postage.

A postmark can be a cancellation, if it is actually applied to the stamp, but postmarks are often found elsewhere on the cover rather than directly on the stamp. In such cases, they are not cancellations.

The simplest and one of the earliest forms of cancellation is the manuscript cancel made by hand with a pen or other writing device. These also are sometimes called pen cancels. They can be scribbles, lines, hatchings or any other marking that defaces the stamp.

Manuscript cancels on classic stamps are generally considered acceptable, if less desirable than a handstamped cancellation. The United States 3¢ George Washington stamp (Scott 65) shown in Figure 1 bears a hatched-lines manuscript cancel.

On stamps that were valid for payment of either postage or revenue, a dated pen cancel usually indicates revenue use.

Modern stamps receive manuscript cancels, usually with a felt-tip pen, when a postal clerk at the delivery post office notices that the stamps were not properly canceled when the piece was mailed. Such stamps are the bane of collectors, most of whom despise the practice.

In the beginning, all mail was canceled by hand. Some countries dispensed with a separate cancel and straightway used the postmark as a cancellation device by applying it directly to the stamp. In other countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, the postmark and cancellation were usually discrete markings.

Stamps on which the postmark falls squarely and legibly are called socked-on-the-nose or bull's-eye cancels. They are avidly collected by specialists.

The Swiss 20-centime Fokker Monoplane airmail stamp (Scott C38) shown in Figure 2 bears a Niederuzwil, Sept. 23, 1944, bull's-eye cancel.

In the United States and Great Britain, the postmarking device and the canceling device were originally two different pieces of equipment. The postal clerk would apply the postmark somewhere on the face of the envelope with the postmarking device. He would then use a separate cancellation device to cancel the stamp or stamps on the cover. The cancellation device was often something as simple as a piece of cork or a block of wood, sometimes with a pattern cut into it.

Someone thought of combining both markings in one device, and the duplex canceler was born.

A duplex canceler has the postmark at left and a cancellation mark, known as a killer, at right. It was usually applied so that the cancellation fell on the face of the stamp with the postmark on the cover to the stamp's immediate left.

A March 11, 1901, Philadelphia, Pa., duplex cancel is shown photographically cropped from its cover in Figure 3.

Sometimes the cancel was just a geometric pattern or an obliterator, but other cancels contain information, such as a number indicating the canceler used or the station at which it was applied.

The shoeprint killer of the cancel in Figure 3 has the number "2."

"RMS" in a U.S. duplex cancel indicates that the letter was processed in a mobile post office, usually either a railway or a streetcar post office, although early U.S. airmail also received "RMS" cancels.

British lettered or numbered duplex cancels contain even more information than that. The cancel's shape and the letters and numbers in it identify the post office where it was used.

The ½-penny Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 111)shown in Figure 4 bears a "43" barred duplex killer, indicating the Charing Cross post office in the London district. These are also collected by specialists.

In the days when mail was processed by hand, receiving postmarks were usually applied on the back of a cover to show when it arrived at the delivery office. International mail often received one or more transit postmarks on the back as it passed through the international mail centers of intermediary and delivery country post offices.

Nowadays, most postal administrations don't bother with receiving postmarks, although a few still do.

Canceling mail by hand is labor intensive, and therefore relatively expensive. In the 1870s, the machine cancellation was born.

At first, the cancellation part of the machine cancel consisted of plain bars or wavy or straight lines. Later symbols and devices such as an eagle surrounded by lightening bolts or a flag or other patriotic emblem appeared in the cancellation. A Canadian Feb. 26, 1899, machine flag cancellation from Hamilton, Ontario, is shown photographically cropped from its cover in Figure 5.

Next came slogan cancellations, with a message printed inside a box or between the bars of the cancel. The slogan's message can impart a wide range of messages, including common sense advice, public service announcements, patriotic or religious messages, event advertising, commercial advertising or virtually any other type of message that lends itself to a pithy slogan.

A June 26, 1957, Oklahoma City, Okla., "Okla. Semi-Centennial Exposition June 14-July 7 Oklahoma City" slogan cancel is shown photographically cropped from cover in Figure 6.

Which brings us to the present day. In the United States, handcancels and machine cancels have both virtually disappeared, and most mail is no longer canceled at the post office where it is mailed.

Nowadays, most U.S. mail is shipped to and processed at regional centers or facilities, with most of the canceling done by sprayed-on cancels.

The sprayed-on cancel does a fairly good job of canceling the stamp. But the blurry and messy cancellation is not very aesthetically pleasing, and the postmark part and slogan, if there is one, are often nearly illegible.