Precanceled postage stamps have existed for more than a century, and those who collect and study them know that the field provides remarkable variety.
A precancel is really just what it sounds like: a stamp that is canceled before it is used for mailing.
Two examples of precanceled stamps from the United States are shown in Figure 1. Horizontal bars or lines with a city name printed between them typically identify a precanceled stamp.
Precancels save time for the postal service. Because the black cancel is added to the stamp before mailing, envelopes franked with precanceled stamps do not have to be sent through a canceling machine before the mail is delivered.
Mailers must have special permits on file to use precanceled stamps for postage, so most individuals cannot use precancels on their mail. Businesses are the primary users of precanceled stamps.
Because certain conditions must be met to use precanceled stamps, the postal service shares the savings in time and labor costs with the mailer by giving a reduction in the postage rate.
Precancel stamps were authorized by the United States Post Office Department in 1887, though some precancels had been created in earlier years by local offices.
Over the years, users of precanceled postage stamps included mailers with bulk rate permits, meaning they mailed large quantities of mail at one time. The mailer did some preliminary sorting of the mail, so the postal service did not have to.
Nonprofit organizations have also qualified as precanceled stamp users, and have benefited from reduced postage rates.
The end result is that precanceled stamps usually arrived on what is often referred to as "junk mail," such as advertising mail and requests for donations.
The stamps shown in Figure 1 are representative of two major categories of precancels. The stamp at left is a Bureau print precancel, so called because the precancel overprint was applied at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., before the stamp ever reached the local post office.
The stamp at right is a local precancel. The overprint was applied locally to stamps from post office stock, and then sold to qualified mailers.
The primary difference between these two stamps is the style of the precancel overprint. The fact is, though, that both Bureau precancels and local precancels come in a variety of styles. Distinguishing the two categories is a standard identification procedure for many collectors.
Fortunately, a collector's group known as the Precancel Stamp Society has compiled catalogs that help the collector identify the various overprints. Information about the PSS can be found in a box printed on this page.
The fourth edition of the PSS Catalog of United States Bureau Precancelswas published in October 1997. The catalog lists 24 different styles of overprints for Bureau precancels on U.S. postage stamps. Some of the styles have only minor differences, like the distance between the horizontal lines or the format used to abbreviate the state name.
The catalog lists overprints by state, with alphabetical listings by city.
Local precancels and Bureau precancels are both listed in the PSS Town & Type Catalog, though not with the stamp-by-stamp listings found in the Bureau catalog. The reason is that the sheer quantity of local overprints makes such a listing unworkable.
Instead, each overprint style, local and Bureau type, is listed for each town that used precanceled stamps.
Local precancels were printed from several different kinds of devices. Some were supplied by the Post Office Department to local postmasters, while others were handstamping devices that were manufactured locally (which accounts for the remarkable variety of styles found on local precancels).
Among the different types of devices used are typesets (from set type or linotype slugs), electros (printed from electroplates) and rubber, metal or vinyl handstamps.
The two general categories served mailers well for many years, but in 1970 the Post Office Department began experimenting with its methods of postage stamp precanceling with the issuance of Christmas stamps with straight- or wavy-line precancels for general public use (Scott 1414a-18a).
The 1974 self-adhesive Dove Weather Vane Christmas issue, Scott 1552, was marked with the inscription "PRECANCELED" and had crossed slashes die cut through the design.
In 1976, coil stamps from the Americana series were inscribed with the name of the mailing service the stamp was intended to fulfill: "Bulk Rate" on the 7.9¢ Drum (Scott 1615), and later on the 7.7¢ Saxhorns (Scott 1614).
Within a couple of years, Bureau precancel overprints with city and state names were discontinued.
The first three stamps in Figure 2 show (from left) how later coils were issued with a precancel overprint that included a service designation, a no-lines overprint with service designation in red, and a simple black overprint with two horizontal lines and no wording at all.
This evolutionary process finally resulted in the end of Bureau precancels, and the widespread use of nondenominated service-inscribed stamps as a replacement. One example used today, the Butte Nonprofit coil stamp, is shown at right in Figure 2.
Local precancels with town names between horizontal lines still see limited use today, though the vast majority of bulk mailers who use stamps use service-inscribed issues, like the Butte coil, that bear no overprint.
With all the varieties that exist, how does one begin a precancel collection?
"Sort the stamps by city and state," suggests Dilmond D. Postlewait, who has been collecting precancels for nearly 50 years, and served as the editor of Precancel Forum for 21 years. He also penned a regular Precancels column for Linn's Stamp News from 1978 to 1995.
He suggests that collectors can then organize stamps by series: for example, the 1938 Presidential series (like the stamps in Figure 1), or the 1954 Liberty series.
Postlewait prefers this method over a collection arranged simply by denomination. An organized series collection helps to show how precancels were used in a specific era.
Precancel collectors often create their own album pages, or arrange their collections on stock pages.
Though the modern use of precancel stamps is winding down, the study of them has been heating up. Collectors still look for varieties and errors (Figure 3), and precancel study groups and local chapters exist all over the country.
Collecting precanceled stamps on intact covers preserves postal history and provides additional information about the use of the stamps.
The closing statement in the PSS publication, The A.B.C. of Precancel Collecting, notes, "Few experiences are as rewarding as discovering something that no one else noticed before. Precancels are about as fertile a field for such discovery as there is."