By Michael Baadke
Most of the postmarks seen on mail today are applied by machine through a high-speed automated process that effectively conveys millions of pieces of mail each day.
When United States postage stamps first appeared in 1847, each stamp was postmarked by hand, either with a handcancel device or with an ink line across the face of the stamp.
A previous Refresher Course column described how early handcancels were used to mark postage stamps so they could not be reused. Often the same method was used to show when the item was mailed and the location where it was postmarked.
Postmarking machines were first used in the United States in 1876, but handcancels have remained in use, often employed when a mailed item cannot be processed by machine.
Today's letter mail is most often sorted and postmarked by a large and complex machine known as an automatic facer-canceler (AFC), part of which is shown in Figure 1.
Letter mail is dumped into the AFC, which properly faces each envelope to automatically apply a postmark to the stamp.
The AFC is able to accomplish this because most U.S. stamps printed since 1963 are tagged with a small amount of phosphorescent material that glows when exposed to shortwave ultraviolet light.
The machine detects the phosphor in the stamp and positions the envelope so the stamp will be struck by a metal postmarking cylinder as the envelope flies past it.
Figure 2 shows the stamp corners of three envelopes postmarked by the AFC.
The marking shown in the top illustration is an example of the most common machine cancel in the United States today. At left is a round portion known as the circular date stamp, or CDS. It includes the date and location where the postmark was applied.
This location may not be the same as the post office where the letter was deposited. The envelope in the illustration bears a Yellow Springs, Ohio, return address and was most likely mailed from that location, although it is postmarked Dayton, a larger city located about 15 miles to the west.
Smaller post offices may cancel some envelopes from time-to-time using a simple hand-fed machine, but more often the smaller office will simply ship the mail it receives to a nearby larger city where the AFC quickly sorts and postmarks each piece.
The local machine cancels usually can be distinguished from the AFC cancels because of format differences in the CDS and the killer lines.
The right side of the AFC postmark is known as the "killer," because it marks (or kills) the postage stamp so it cannot be used again.
Most killers resemble the seven wavy lines shown at the top of Figure 2, but many post offices regularly use slogan cancels that promote the United States Postal Service, a social cause or some event of regional interest.
The postmark in the center of Figure 2 has a pictorial killer that includes the message "Fall in Love with stamp collecting."
The bottom postmark reads, "Heart disease — your #1 enemy — your #1 defense heart fund."
It so happens that these two markings both have a theme relevant to the design of the heart-shaped 33¢ Love stamp, Scott 3274, used for postage.
Such combinations of themes matching the stamp with the slogan cancel occur by chance, but they make nice additions to a collection of either stamps or cancels.
Some slogan cancels have pictorial elements that make them suitable for a topical or thematic collection.
Obtaining a slogan cancel is often a matter of chance, though some collectors have had good luck submitting a stamped, addressed envelope to the postmaster in a city with a known slogan and politely requesting the envelope be serviced so that it receives the desired slogan.
It's a little easier to obtain one of the many pictorial commemorative postmarks offered each week by offices of the U.S. Postal Service.
Handstamped postmarks, often with pictorial elements, are used to commemorate everything from museum openings to civic anniversary celebrations to local festivals and much more.
These markings are listed each week in Linn's Postmark Pursuit column.
To obtain one of the postmarks described in the listing, a collector must mail a stamped, addressed envelope or card (also known as a "cover") to the address provided within 30 days of the announced postmark date.
The postmarked cover is then returned through the mailstream.
Some collectors use peelable address labels that can be removed once the cover is returned, so that it may be saved unaddressed.
Figure 3 shows two different cancels on the 1998 32¢ Year of the Tiger stamp, Scott 3179.
The marking at the bottom is a commemorative cancel that was applied for a limited time in Alhambra, Calif., to mark a local festival.
The top marking is a first-day cancel that commemorates where and when the Year of the Tiger stamp was issued.
Almost every time the U.S. Postal Service issues a new stamp, it allows collectors to obtain a first-day cancel marking the event.
The Year of the Tiger stamp was officially issued in Seattle Jan. 5, 1998, as the postmark shows.
The procedure for obtaining a first-day cancel is just about the same as the procedure given in previous paragraphs for obtaining a commemorative cancel.
The address for the first-day cancel is provided in Linn's, usually before the new stamp is issued. Instructions for obtaining the first-day cancel appear at the end of this story.
Some first-day cancels are applied by hand while others are marked by a machine. Collectors sometimes find first-day cancels for the same stamp that differ slightly in style, because one is a handcancel and the other is from a machine.
Local post offices use a variety of handcancel devices every day. Markings from four of these devices are shown in Figure 4.
One of the more common markings is the cancel shown at upper left in Figure 4. This cancel, from a device known as a round-dater, is usually struck in red and is sometimes used on larger envelopes that cannot be sent through the AFC.
The same postmark device is often used to mark receipts and other USPS paperwork.
The postmark directly below it is a variation of the round-dater, also seen most frequently in red.
At right are two markings in black, both known as "four-bar killers." Each includes a large round CDS at left and four straight-line killer bars to the right.
Collectors may request handcancels at local post offices, but not every office has every type of cancel available.
Some collectors like to obtain handcancels from specific locations on specific dates to complete a commemorative cover of their own design.
For example, the post office won't create a special commemorative cancel to mark a 50th wedding anniversary, but it may be possible to obtain a handcancel from the city where the couple was married, dated on the exact anniversary date.
All requests for cancels from the Postal Service must include a stamped envelope or postcard. The Postal Service only applies cancels to stamps, not blank paper.
Unlike commemorative cancels, handcancels from a post office are applied only with the present day's date. Therefore, requests for a specific cancel must be timed carefully.
Often a mailed request to a postmaster asking for a marking on a particular future date is successful. A collector may wish to include an addressed return envelope bearing sufficient postage for return of the envelope or envelopes submitted. Otherwise, the canceled covers may pick up unwanted markings on their way back to the collector.
Most collectors prefer to save entire covers with the markings intact, though some cut their postmark collections into four-inch by two-inch shapes known as "two by fours."
Collectors should take particular care when cutting covers, to make sure they aren't destroying a significant postal history item.
Some collectors simply ignore the postmark as they look for stamps that interest them, but there are many ways that postmarks can be used to add variety to any collection.