World postmark primer: how to decipher dates

Feb 23, 2004, 9 AM

By Rick Miller

Postmarks have been around since before the invention of stamps.

Generally speaking, the purpose of the postmark is to indicate the date and place of mailing. A postmark can also serve as a cancellation if it is applied by intent or happenstance to a stamp.

One of the earliest postal markings is the Bishop's mark, which is the first postal datestamp.

In 1661, Henry Bishop, postmaster general of Britain and namesake of the marking, devised the postmark to prevent patrons from claiming that a letter had been presented for delivery earlier than it really had and blaming the post office for slow delivery.

Bishop was in charge of the mail that traveled to and from London over the six main post roads of Bristol, Chester, Kent, North, Western and Yarmouth.

If the letter was mailed in London, a Bishop's mark was used as a postmark. If London was the destination, it was used as a receiving mark.

Originally, the Bishop's mark was a bisected circle with a two-letter abbreviation for the month in the top half and the day of the month in the bottom half. The year was not given in the postmark because it was not considered necessary.

Including the year in a postmark date did not become standard until about 1860.

In 1713, the day and month switched positions so that the month was on the bottom.

Simple enough, right? But look at the tracing of the Bishop's mark shown in Figure 1, given as "13 IV." Common sense tells us that the date is April 13, with the month given in Roman numerals.

But common sense would be wrong. The date is June 13. The two-letter month abbreviation is given in Latin capital letters in which "J" is written as "I" and "U" is written as "V."

Some postmark dates are absolutely straightforward and impossible to misconstrue, such as the May 7, 1937, Newark, N.J., postmark on the United States 1¢ green John Paul Jones and John Barry stamp shown in Figure 2.

The date is given in month-day-year order, which is standard on U.S. postmarks, and the month is spelled out, precluding any chance of misunderstanding.

The date "JU 11 97" is also given in month-day-year order in the Dundee, Scotland, postmark on the 1-penny lilac Queen Victoria stamp shown in Figure 3. But the month abbreviation "JU" is ambiguous. Does it stand for June or July? By comparing it with other British postmarks, we learn that in Britain, June is abbreviated "JU" and July is normally abbreviated "JY," so June 11, 1897, it is.

While month-day-year-order postmarks are common for the United States and for older Great Britain and British colonies postmarks, they are relatively rare in much of the rest of the world.

The Mexican 25-centavo Eagle airmail stamp shown in Figure 4 bears a "Tamalin, 20 ABR 30" day-month-year order postmark. The day-month-year order postmark is probably the most common format in use in the world today.

The three-letter month abbreviation is also a much used format. Fortunately, the three-letter abbreviations for the months are relatively similar in many languages.

Even if your knowledge of Spanish is minimal, it

doesn't take too much imagination to conclude that "ABR" is the abbreviation for April, giving the date April 20, 1930, for this postmark.

If you have a question about a foreign month abbreviation, the answer is usually as close as the reference section of your local library or a Google-search on the Internet.

Many postmarks do not use month abbreviations. Instead they give the date as five or six digits. Knowing that day-month-year order is standard in most of Europe and much of the rest of the world means the "SULZBACH, 2 12 32" postmark on the Saar 60-centime Colliery Shafthead stamp shown in Figure 5 refers to Dec. 2, 1932, rather than Feb. 12, 1932.

Many postmarks use day-month-year order but give the month in Roman numerals rather than in Arabic numbers.

Most of us learned our Roman numerals in grade school and can still read them up to XII with little problem. However, the Roman numeral for February (II) is often misread as the Arabic number for November (11).

The key in distinguishing between them is to look for serifs on the Arabic "11." February in Roman numerals is usually shown with two capital "I" letters or two sans-serif "I" letters, as in the Mikolov, Feb. 1, 1932, postmark on the Polish 30-groszy Sobieski Statue at Lvov stamp shown in Figure 6.

Compare the Roman numeral for February in that postmark with the Arabic number in the Aarhus, Nov. 23, 1935, postmark on the Danish 10-ore orange late fee stamp shown in Figure 7. The stamp is shown sideways, oriented to the postmark.

A less frequently encountered format for postmark dates is year-month-day order. Postmarks with this date order are normally found on Hungarian stamps, such as the "KONDOROS, 930 JUN 27" postmark on the 30-filler emerald Palace at Budapest stamp shown in Figure 8. The stamp is shown upside down, oriented to the postmark.

Note that 20th-century Hungarian postmarks usually omit the initial "1" from the year date. Nineteenth century Hungarian postmarks usually show only the last two digits of the year date.

Nowadays, we pretty much take it for granted that, if today is Feb. 23 in the United States of America, it is also Feb. 23 (with allowances for time zones and the International Date Line) in most of the rest of the world.

It wasn't always that way.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision to the Julian calendar to better align the calendar with the solar year. The Julian calendar and the sun were 10 days out of sync at the time. This modification to the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) is known as the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar was immediately adopted in the Italian states, Spain, Portugal and Poland. The calendar was brought in line with the solar year in these countries by skipping 10 days. In 1582, people in these countries went to bed on the evening of Oct. 4 and got up on the morning of Oct. 15.

The Gregorian calendar was soon adopted by most Roman Catholic countries, but it was shunned for hundreds of years in many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries.

Postal historians trying to decipher international postal routes and delivery times have to be aware of when each country made the transition. Also, there could be interesting postal markings on letters mailed around the time of the transition in each country.

A table showing the conversion dates for most countries is available

The longer a country waited to change to the Gregorian calendar, the further out of sync it got with the solar year and the rest of the world: 11 days by the time Great Britain made the transition in 1752, and 13 days by the time most Eastern Orthodox countries switched in the early 20th century.

When Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, it skipped from Sept. 2 to Sept. 14, 1752. There were protests and disturbances as some bewildered Englishmen demanded the return of their lost 11 days.

Last to change, during or shortly after World War I, were the Orthodox Christian countries of Eastern Europe. That's why the Russian team missed most of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and why it was already November in most of the rest of the world when the October Revolution happened in Russia.

Calendar collectors are collectors who try to find stamps with legible dates for every day in a given range of time: anywhere from a single year from 1860 to the present.

Stamps with Julian date postmarks, such as the Russian 3-kopek Tsar Alexander III stamp postmarked Jan. 8, 1915, shown in Figure 9, can be a problem for calendar collectors. The Julian date of the cancel equates to Jan. 21 in the Gregorian calendar.

Most calendar collectors prefer to convert the date to its Gregorian equivalent and mount the stamp in that space on their calendar. Some simply pass up stamps with Julian date cancels. Others mount the date as it reads, figuring that all's fair in love and calendar collecting. Some collectors have separate Julian date calendar collections.

Even when all agree on the month and day, there can be disagreement over the year.

Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, but it numbers the years based on the ascension of the emperor to the throne. Year 1 begins at the death of the old emperor and ends on Dec. 31.

For example, Emperor Hirohito came to the throne on Dec. 25, 1926. On a Japanese postmark, normally given in year-month-day order that date would read "1 12 25." Year 1 of Hirohito's reign was only seven days long.

Because other years in which an emperor died and a new emperor ascended to the throne (1868, 1912, 1926 and 1989) start over as year 1 after the ascension, you have to know when the stamp was in use to figure out the date.

For example, the Japanese 10-yen Cherry Blossoms stamp shown sideways in Figure 10 was issued in 1961. Therefore, the "40.11.3" postmark has to date from the reign of the Emperor Hirohito (1926-89), making the date Nov. 3, 1965.

There are still other dating systems to puzzle out including Hebrew, Arabic, Ottoman and Thai, but this should get you through the great majority of postmark dates that you are likely to encounter.

If calendar collecting intrigues you, you will want to join the Bullseye Cancel Collectors Club. Annual membership is $15 and includes a subscription to BCCC Bulletin.

For membership, write to from Stan Vernon, 2749 Pine Knoll Drive, No. 4, Walnut Creek, CA 94595-2044. A free perpetual calendar and sample issue of the bulletin are available on request.