US Stamps

By John M. Hotchner

Confusing regulations stymie postmark hand-back service for wedding postcard

November 06, 2015 10:30 AM

  • The cause of an argument with a postal clerk, this wedding-commemoration postcard was presented for a hand-back cancellation. It was initially refused, based on United States Postal Service rules cited in this column, but was eventually given after the creator explained that there was no misrepresentation involved.

By John M. Hotchner

Have you ever gone into a post office and asked to have a mailpiece or cover canceled and returned to you? Many collectors can and do tell stories about how they were treated. I have heard everything from the granting of the request to outright denial – with all sorts of negotiating between.

Courtesy of Linn’s reader Bob Toal, who passed along research from Jim Pettaway of the Knoxville, Tenn., Philatelic Society, it seems that the United States Postal Service’s instructions guiding window clerks call for outright rejection in some cases, and the possibility of granting the requested hand-back service in others.

In other words, there are reasons stamp collectors might feel frustrated, but window clerks have a difficult row to hoe with rules that require them to use discretion.

The Postal Operations Manual, issue No. of 9 of July 2002, section 233.41 deals with hand-back service.

This section reads: “When a customer personally presents a stamped addressed or unaddressed envelope, postcard, or other item described in section 231.63, to a Postal Service employee for post marking, the item can be postmarked and handed back to the customer.

“All such materials must bear uncanceled postage, which includes the new first day of sale stamp, at the applicable First-Class Mail rate. The postage to be postmarked may not include any newly released stamps that may have been issued after the requested official first day of sale postmark date. This postmark is provided only for philatelic purposes and should not be used to postmark bill payments, tax returns, applications, and/or other date-sensitive mail. Only after careful examination should a philatelic item be postmarked and handed back to the customer/collector.

“In most cases, the philatelic envelope, card, or other item does not enter the mail. However, on occasion, a customer may request that their properly addressed and postmarked item be placed into the mailstream. In such cases, this can only be done on the official first day of sale date. Retail associates should ensure that items with first day of sale postmarks are trayed separately and flagged nonmachinable when sending to mail processing.

“Hand-back service may be provided only when such service does not interfere with other retail sales, mail processing operations, and/or does not inconvenience other customers. Postmasters, at their discretion, may offer hand-back service or make arrangements with a customer for drop-off and pick-up service for items.”

In other words, while there are dozens of other reasons a collector might ask for an envelope and stamps to be hand-canceled and returned, the USPS rules cover only first-day cover requests, and those rules are somewhat ambiguous.

In the case at hand, Toal wanted to have postcards with the 44¢ Wedding Rings stamp (Scott 4397) canceled on the date of his daughter’s wedding. The cards were then to be signed by the principals at the wedding, and thus become a collectible keepsake.

Toal said he had to plead for the hand-back cancellations because the clerk maintained it was against policy. Reading the rules from the Postal Service, I can well understand why the clerk might have maintained that such service could not be given – even though there was clearly no misrepresentation involved.