Collecting cancels and postmarks adds spice and knowledge

Apr 28, 2021, 5 PM

By Janet Klug

Collecting postally used stamps seems to have become less popular than it once was. Modern United States self-adhesives have become increasingly difficult, although not impossible, to collect used.

Self-adhesive stamps are not always easy to remove from envelopes. Modern U.S. ink-jet postmarks are not as appealing as bygone circular datestamps.

But billions of older stamps bear fascinating postmarks. The postmarks can add great interest, and in some cases, great value to any collection.

Postal markings have their own nomenclature. Although the words "cancel" and "postmark" are often used interchangeably, there are nuances of difference.

A postmark is any marking applied to an envelope by a postal administration, but stamp collectors generally consider a postmark to be the marking that contains the place and date of posting.

A postmark that strikes the stamp, rendering it invalid for further use, is called a cancel. Some postmarks include bars, wavy lines or other obliterators that are intended to strike and cancel the stamp. That part of the postmark is called the "killer" because it effectively kills the postage value of the stamp.

Figure 1 shows a wavy-line killer cancel on a 1968 Austrian Stamp Day semipostal stamp.

Bull's-eyes are postmarks that are centered on the stamp so that the place and date of mailing are clearly visible. They are also called socked-on-the-nose postmarks, abbreviated SOTN.

An example of a bull's-eye cancel from Tonga is shown in Figure 2. One of the outer islands, Haapai, was the place of mailing, and the date "13JL51" (July 13, 1951) is clearly visible.

Fancy cancels such as the blue leaf cancel on the U.S. 1870 2¢ Andrew Jackson stamp shown in Figure 3 are eagerly sought by specialists as well as topical collectors.

The 19th-century fancy cancelers were usually carved from cork or some other material. A desirable 19th-century fancy cancel can add substantial value to a relatively common stamp.

More modern machine postmarks sometimes include slogan cancels that incorporate a pictorial element. Sometimes slogan or other cancels combine with the stamp design to produce a comical effect.

Figure 4 shows a French stamp issued in 1979 to promote a judo championship. The telephone handset shown in the slogan cancel combines with the stamp to illustrate, it appears to me, the TV commercial phrase "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Great Britain used many styles of postmarks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Collecting any of the types of British postmarks can be an engrossing specialty. Collecting one of each is a great way to teach yourself about postmarks. They have some great, descriptive names too, such as tombstones, spoons, thimbles, squared circles, hooded, barred ovals and steps.

An 1887 ½-penny British stamp bearing a duplex numeral cancel is shown in Figure 5. The shape of the vertical barred cancel means that the stamp was used in England or Wales. Cancels used in Scotland and Ireland have different shapes.

The numeral "549" in the barred oval refers to the town where the postmark was applied.

The other part of a duplex cancel gives the date and place it was used. A small part of the ring of this postmark appears at the lower left edge of the stamp.

Collectors who enjoy collecting numeral cancels use specialized catalogs that identify the towns by their numerals. In this example, the 549 refers to Hanley, England.

A popular type of cancel used extensively in Europe and elsewhere is called a "bridge." A bridge cancel is one that consists of one or two concentric circles bearing the town and country names and a central horizontal space (the bridge) that contains the date.

An example of a bridge cancel from Katowice, Poland, is struck on the 10-grosz Sigismund Monument stamp shown in Figure 6.

Today most postmarks are applied using high-speed machines that handle thousands of letters a minute. Machines that postmarked letters were developed in the last quarter of the 19th century and have been modified and refined many times since.

Figure 7 shows a small cover bearing a 1917 example of a common U.S. machine cancel applied by an International Postal Supply Co. machine.

Stamps have also been canceled in advance of their usage. Such stamps are known as "precancels."

Collecting precancels is enormously challenging and surprisingly inexpensive. There are a huge variety of precancels, making this area of collecting attractive to a collector on a budget.

The 11¢ Rutherford B. Hayes stamp shown in Figure 8 bears a Grand Rapids, Mich., precancel.

For more information on collecting postmarks, contact either or both of the following:

Machine Postmark Collectors Club, Gary Carlson, 3097 Frobisher Ave., Dublin, OH 43017-1652.

Post Mark Collectors Club, Membership Manager, Robert J. Milligan, 7014 Woodland Oaks Drive, Magnolia, TX 77354-4898.

So if you are a mint, never-hinged sort of collector and want to try something different, look into the realm of postmark collecting. Postmarks are a vital part of the history of stamps and postal communication. And postmarks are a lot of fun to collect too.