For a new challenge, try collecting postmarks and cancellations

Apr 28, 2021, 10 PM

By Janet Klug

Collecting postally used stamps can be challenging, but also quite rewarding. There are many options for those who wish to give it a try.

A postmark contains the name of the post office of mailing or receiving, and the date of mailing or receiving.First things first, though: Let's get the terminology straight.

A cancel is any marking that strikes the stamp and invalidates it for future use. A postmark can be a cancel, but a cancel is not necessarily a postmark. A cancel can be anything from an expensive, fancy marking made from carved cork and applied to a 19th-century stamp, to today's quick swipe with a felt-tipped marker that makes collectors cringe.

Postmarks can be collected by town, type, topic or special services. Cancels come in a vast array of styles. There are fancy cancels, numeral cancels, sprayed-on cancels, first-day cancels and many others. The field is huge.

Postmarks and cancels can be applied by hand (called handstamped), or by machine.

Many postmark enthusiasts will begin by collecting postmarks that are placed so perfectly that the place and date of mailing are fully intact on the stamp. Figure 1 shows a stamp issued by Ghana in 1964. It has a postmark from Dunkwa dated Nov. 27, 1964.

A well-centered postmark such as this is called a bull's-eye cancel or socked-on-the-nose cancel. In advertisements and literature, you might see this abbreviated as "SOTN."

An easy way to begin is to look for bull's-eye cancels in inexpensive mixtures. If you collect the world, or one country or even one year, it will be a nice challenge to complete a calendar of dates (ignoring the years). Feb. 29 is the most difficult date to acquire, as it only turns up once every four years.

Other collectors seek certain types of postmarks that are best collected on cover. An example is machine-made postmarks, such as the waving flag Nov. 1, 1906, Chickasha, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), machine cancellation shown in Figure 2 photographically cropped from the full cover.

These are generally collected on intact covers, as are first-day-of-issue postmarks, such as the Aug. 10, 1946, Washington, D.C., first-day-of-issue cancellation shown in Figure 3, photographically cropped from the full cover.

If you have a doubt about whether you should keep a stamp on the envelope to which it is affixed or remove it, the best advice is to keep it on the cover.

Some cancels are called killers because they blot out or seriously deface most of the stamp design. Collectors of used stamps generally try to avoid killer cancellations, but killer cancels on cover are often still collectible.

Figure 4 shows a 1-penny Queen Victoria stamp bearing a numeral cancellation photographically cropped from a cover that was mailed in Great Britain in 1859. Although this barred cancellation is a killer, the numeral between the bars is a clue that will tell a curious collector where the letter was mailed. In this instance, the number is "446," used in Ledbury, England, according to the book Collect British Postmarks by J.T. Whitney.

Great Britain has a vast array of early handstamped postmarks and cancels. They come with some great nicknames given to them by those who specialize in collecting them. In most cases, the names relate to the appearance of the postmarks. There are spoons, tombstones, numerals, squared circles, double circles, hoods and a host of others.

Figure 5 shows a corner of a cover with two different types of British postmarks. On the left is a numeral duplex postmark from Cambridge, England, and at right, tying the stamp to the cover, is a squared-circle postmark from Chester, England.

Sometimes seeing a gorgeous postmark on a cover is reason enough to acquire it. An example of a recent acquisition is shown in Figure 6: a beautifully struck squared-circle Nov. 5, 1897, Smith Falls, Ontario, Canada, postmark on a 1¢ Queen Victoria postal card.

Those who collect postmarks are well served with the availability of excellent reference works and several specialty groups. There are also a number of specialist societies for collectors interested in collecting postmarks and cancellations.

For information about the Post Mark Collectors Club, write to Terry W. Meier, 1828 A St. S.E., Washington, DC 20003-1705; or visit the web site at

To learn about the Bullseye Cancel Collectors Club, write to Stan Vernon, 2749 Pine Knoll Drive, No. 4, Walnut Creek, CA 94595-2044; or visit the web site at

For the Machine Cancel Society, write to Gary M. Carlson, 3097 Frobisher Ave., Dublin, OH 43017; or visit the web site at

The Universal Ship Cancel Society caters to those with a nautical bent. Write to Glenn W. Smith, 3571 Orrstown Road, Orrstown, PA 17244-9423; or visit the web site at

For information about the U.S. Cancellation Club, write to Roger D. Curran, 20 University Ave., Lewisburg, PA 17837.

The American First Day Cover Society serves the FDC-collecting community. Write to Douglas A. Kelsey, Box 16277, Tucson, AZ 85732-6277; or visit the web site at

The Mobile Post Office Society is for collectors interested in railroad, highway and boat post offices. Write to Douglas N. Clark, Box 427, Marstons Mills, MA 02648-0427; or visit the web site at