U.S. handcancels prevented stamp reuse

May 10, 1999, 6 AM
Figure 2. The Bridgeport Fireman cancel on this 1866 letter was one of several well-known and highly collectible fancy cancels created by the postmaster of Waterbury, Conn. Click on image to enlarge.

By Michael Baadke

From the earliest days of United States postage stamp production, one of the great concerns of the post office has been preventing the illegal reuse of stamps.

This is generally accomplished by applying a postmark or other cancellation that invalidates the stamp.

The terms "postmark" and "cancellation" have specific meanings that are different from one another.

A postmark is usually considered to be a marking applied by the post office to a piece of mail as it travels to its destination, including markings identifying the town of origin, as well as transit markings such as "PAID" or "FORWARDED."

Some collectors prefer to think of a postmark as being only that portion of a marking that identifies the date and location where the item was mailed, but that definition is generally too narrow.

A postmark may be struck upon a postage stamp to invalidate it for future use. Other postmarks may provide additional information about the mail delivery.

Cancellation is a more specific term that refers only to the postal marking that obliterates a postage stamp to indicate it has been accepted for use and cannot be used again.

A cancellation, therefore, is always a postmark, but a postmark is not always a cancellation.

Postmarks were developed long before postage stamps, mostly to indicate the point of origin for a specific mail piece.

Postage on early mail usually was paid by the recipient rather than the mailer. The postmark allowed the post office to calculate the distance the letter traveled and thereby determine the amount of payment that was due.

The first U.S. postage stamps issued in 1847 brought with them the concern that instead of buying new stamps, recipients might reuse the stamps they received on mail.

To prevent this, postmasters marked each stamp on each letter to indicate that it had been used and could not be used again.

Three postally used examples of the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin stamp of 1847, one of the first two U.S. postage stamps, are shown in Figure 1. Each is marked with a different type of cancellation.

The stamp at left is marked with a handwritten cancel (usually called a "manuscript cancel") in the shape of a simple "X." This method of cancellation was very common on early stamped mail. Manuscript pen or marker cancels are still seen from time to time on today's mail, when the automatic machinery designed to deface modern stamps has somehow failed in its mission.

At the center of Figure 1 is a stamp bearing a town postmark used as a cancel across the stamp's face.

The stamp at right in the illustration was canceled with a black rectangular grid of squares.

Siegel Auction Galleries of New York, which offered these three stamps a few years ago, identified the grid of squares cancel as originating from Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

While the three cancels shown in Figure 1 are all quite different from one another, they all accomplish the intended goal of sufficiently marking the stamp to prevent reuse.

Linn's Postal History columnist Richard B. Graham wrote in his book United States Postal History Sampler that standardized postmarking handstamps were distributed by the Post Office Department in 1799.

When postage stamps came into use nearly half a century later, the town postmarks were often struck elsewhere on the envelope, and the stamp was canceled with a separate marking known as the "killer."

The grid of squares shown at right in Figure 1 is one example of a killer marking.

However, as the stamp in the center of the same illustration shows, the town marks were sometimes used to cancel the stamps.

After 1860 the use of town marks for cancellation purposes was prohibited by a Post Office Department edict.

The new regulation was put into effect because the information in the town marking often could not be read when it was struck upon the stamp. Another factor that came into consideration was that the town markings often did not sufficiently obliterate the stamp to prevent its reuse.

Postmasters and postal clerks around the country used a number of different devices to cancel stamps, from simple segmented corks to elaborately carved images depicting everything from humans to insects and other animals.

One example is shown in Figure 2. Known as the Bridgeport Fireman, the image of the man's head canceling the 1861 3¢ stamp on the envelope in the illustration was used by the Waterbury, Conn., post office in 1866.

Herman Herst Jr. wrote in the January 1983 Scott Stamp Monthly that the marking was created by John W. Hill to commemorate a baseball rivalry between the fire departments of Waterbury and Bridgeport.

Even more well-known is the famous Waterbury "Running Chicken," which some believe actually may have been a running turkey, since the cancel appeared close to Thanksgiving Day 1869.

Other cancellation designs used by offices around the country included stars, geometric patterns and many more.

In 1859 a duplex-style handstamp was patented by Marcus P. Norton of Troy, N.Y. This device imprinted the circular town stamp at left and the obliterating killer at right with a single motion.

One example from the 1880s, illustrated in Graham's book, is shown in Figure 3.

The device created adjoining marks that both identified the sending office and obliterated the stamp, as shown in Figure 4.

While this duplex cancel is no longer in use, another well-known handcancel is still found today in many U.S. post offices.

The four-bar killer cancel also combines the circular town marking with an obliterating cancel in a single device.

An example from Ellamar, Alaska, dated Feb. 12, 1912, is shown in Figure 5.

Today's handcancels are primarily made from hard rubber or similar synthetic, unlike the earlier steel or wood devices used decades ago.

Metal cancels are primarily used in canceling machines, which debuted in 1876.

Different varieties of handcancels can substantially increase the value of an older stamp and cover. 

Listings for early U.S. postage stamps in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Coversoften give premium values for stamps marked by specific postmarks, including steamship and packet boat markings, markings such as "FREE," "PAID," "STEAM," "WAY" and others, various numeral cancels, and cancels in different ink colors.

The Scott U.S. specialized catalog provides six pages of information about postmarks and cancels in its introduction. It is available from dealers in philatelic literature and many stamp and supply dealers, or by calling Scott Publishing Co. at 800-572-6885.

Richard B. Graham's United States Postal History Sampler is also available from literature dealers, or may be ordered from Linn's Stamp News by using the Linn's Online Bookstore.