By Rick Miller
Many stamp collectors seem yoked to purchasing new, mint stamps as they are issued and to mounting them in a stamp album.
More power to collectors who are satisfied with this fundamental style of collecting.
But increasingly, many collectors accustomed to this form of collecting are being turned-off to the hobby by the flood of new issues churned out each year by the world's postal authorities.
Rather than giving in to despair and abandoning the hobby, such collectors should look beyond mint, new issues to other collecting opportunities and challenges in the broad world of stamp collecting.
One area that you might have overlooked is the collecting of precanceled stamps.
Linn's World Stamp Almanac defines a precancel as a "stamp with a special overprint cancellation allowing it to bypass normal canceling." Normally, these cancels are applied to the stamps before the stamps are affixed to the mail.
Precanceled stamps are intended to save labor and thereby cost, because each piece of mail does not have to be canceled individually.
Most stamp collectors consider precanceled stamps to be less desirable, and precanceled stamps usually sell at a steep discount from catalog value for used stamps.
This is actually a boon to many precancel collectors, who are generally far more interested in the precancel than the stamp on which it is used.
United States precancels date to the beginning of the adhesive stamp era.
The Hale & Co. local post precanceled its local stamps as early as 1844. Hale & Co. local precancels were made by drawing lines across sheets or multiples of the stamps prior to affixing them to the envelopes. Some of these precancels have only vertical lines and some have intersecting vertical and horizontal lines.
Hale & Co. precancels can be distinguished from regularly canceled stamps in that the precancel lines end at the edges of the stamp, while regular cancels usually either do not go all the way to the edges of the stamp or they go beyond the edges, tying the stamp to the cover.
When the Hale & Co. office in Portsmouth, N.H., added the handstamped letters "P" and "N H" to the precancel line to denote the place of usage, all the typical elements of United States precancel markings were in place.
A cover bearing a Portsmouth Hale & Co. precanceled stamp is shown in Figure 1.
France was one of the earliest countries to regularly precancel stamps, beginning in 1853. French postage stamps were affixed to blank newsprint. When the newspaper was printed, the stamps were canceled by the newsprint.
Figure 2 shows a graphically cropped newspaper bearing three 1-centime Napoleon III bronze-green on pale blue paper stamps, Scott 29, that were precanceled in this way. France began using printed precancels in 1920.
Modern French precancels, such as the one shown in Figure 3, are often styled to look like part of a circular postmark and read "AFFRANCHts POSTES" (prepaid mail).
Precanceled stamps have also been used by Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Hungary.
Precanceled stamps were used in Canadian post offices in 1889. The first Canadian precancels, straight lines or wavy lines, were applied to sheets of stamps using rubber rollers.
In 1903 Canada began precanceling stamps using two lines above and below the city and province names.
In 1931, the city names were replaced with a number that represented the city in the postal money-order accounting reports. A Canadian precancel bearing the number "4530," representing Toronto, is shown in Figure 4.
In 1894, Belgium began precanceling stamps used on printed matter with the town name and year date inside a rectangular frame. A boxed and year-dated "Belgique-Belgie" precancel overprint was used from 1929 to 1938.
In 1939, the "Belgique-Belgie" inscription in the precancel was replaced with a posthorn. Variations of this design are still in use on Belgian precancels today. A Belgian typographically overprinted precancel stamp for use between July 1, 1946, and June 30, 1947, is shown in Figure 5.
U.S. precancels are generally classified as pioneer (prior to 1890), classic (1890-1903), city types (1903 and later) and Bureau prints (1923 and later).
U.S. precancels date nearly to the beginning of U.S. stamps themselves. Locally applied precancels are known as far back as the 1851 issue.
Precancellation of U.S. stamps was tolerated by the U.S. Post Office Department, and precancels began to be widely used about 1890.
With the exception of the 1916 experimental Bureau precancels (for New Orleans, La.; Augusta, Maine; and Springfield, Mass.), prior to 1923, all U.S. precancels were applied locally by post office employees or local printing firms.
Local precancel plates usually had only 50 subjects to cancel panes of 100 stamps. The panes had to be passed through the press twice. This often resulted in the precancel being inverted in relation to the stamp on the half of the stamp pane that was canceled in the second pass. An inverted Chicago, Ill., precancel is shown in Figure 6.
In 1903 the USPOD advised postmasters that precancellation of stamps was permissible and prescribed a format of the city and state in two lines of text with a plain printed line above and below. Precancels produced in accordance with this directive are known as "city types."
The plain lines used in city type precancels take two forms, classified by precancel collectors as bars or lines.
Bars are distinguished from lines in that bars do not reach all the way across the stamp and break between adjacent stamps. Lines reach all the way across the stamp and are continuous on the adjacent stamps.
U.S. city-type precancels are found with both bars and lines, while Bureau precancels always have lines.
Smaller U.S. post offices used handstamps to precancel stamps. Initially these were rubber handstamps, but they proved not to be very durable and wore out quickly.
Beginning in 1932 electrotype metal handstamps, with 25, and later, 10 subjects, replaced the rubber handstamps.
In May 1923, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began printing precancels on the stamps at the time that the stamps were printed. These are known as "Bureau prints."
Bureau-print type and city-type precancels with single lines can be hard to distinguish from each other.
The Precancel Stamp Society's Town and Type Catalog of the United States and Territories lists city and Bureau precancels by town and by type of precancel.
The society's Catalog of United States Bureau Precancels lists only the Bureau prints, but in greater detail than the listings in the town and type catalog.
These catalogs divide the types of precancels into Bureau prints, special jigs for locally canceled coil stamps, electroplates used by a local printer, rubber handstamps made under government contract, stereotype handstamps made under government contract and vinyl handstamps made under government contract.
Figure 7 shows a Waurika, Okla., precancel. According to the PSS Town and Type Catalog, the precancel is type 703, made with a stereotyped handstamp produced under government contract.
The Ponca City, Okla., type 247 precancel shown in Figure 8 is called a double-line precancel because it has two lines above and below the place name instead of just one.
A Wichita Falls, Texas, Bureau precancel, type 62, is shown in Figure 9.
In 1938, the USPOD began requiring precanceled stamps denominated more than 6¢ to be marked with the initials of the user and the month and year. This was to preclude the stamps being reused. A Chicago, Ill., precancel used by Sears, Roebuck and Co. (abbreviated "SRC") in March 1956 is shown in Figure 10.
This cursory examination barely scratches the surface of this fascinating and complex collecting area.
To learn more, join the Precancel Stamp Society. Annual membership dues, which includes a subscription to the society newsletter Precancel Forum, are $15. Write to James Hirstein, Box 4072 Missoula, MT 59806-4072.