The ABCs of collecting United States precancels

May 3, 2021, 4 PM

By Joe Kennedy

Organizing my United States precanceled stamps has provided me a lot of fun in recent months.

Rick Miller's fine overview of stamps with precancels (July 14, 2003, Refresher Course) surely stirred me to dig out those U.S. precanceled stamps and finally get them organized.

This new article will review the basics you need to get underway. Don't expect all the finer points, because this overview will cover just the ABCs.

What are precancels?

The Precancel Stamp Society uses this definition: "Precanceled postage stamps, or precancels, may be defined broadly as stamps that have been canceled before being affixed to mail matter."

There are two basic types of precancels: Bureau precancels and town and type precancels.

We begin with town and type. For town and type precancels, you first determine which styles were used for the town and then find the one that matches your stamp.

Town and type collectors get excited about the precancel itself, but they are much less concerned with the stamp that carries it.

Towns and types are listed in the Precancel Stamp Society's Town and Type Catalog of the United States and Territories.

After looking up the possibilities for the town in the state-by-state listings, check the written description and the illustrated example to identify the type.

Suppose you have the Payne, Ohio, precancel on the 5¢ Hugo Black stamp shown in Figure 1. Start by looking in the Ohio section of the catalog.

Sections from appropriate catalog pages are shown along with all the precanceled stamps illustrated with this article.

According to the catalog, only one precancel is known for this town: its style number is 701, and its value was listed as 15¢ in 1999, when the sixth edition of the catalog was published.

Now check the style descriptions section at the front of the catalog for style 701. It says, as reproduced in Figure 1, "Serifed 2.5 mm [millimeters] caps; 1 mm between town and state."

We have a match. The written description and the illustrated example confirm it.

"Serifed" in the written description, refers to the style of lettering used in the precancel. "Serif" is defined as "any of the short lines stemming from and at an angle to the upper and lower ends of the strokes of a letter." The letters in our precancel have these short lines and are serifed.

A quick measurement of the caps (capital letters) shows that they are the correct height, the town name and state name are 1 millimeter apart as described, and the space between the bars is the same in the illustration as it is on our stamp.

That one was easy.

Next let us examine the 1¢ green George Washington stamp with the Findlay, Ohio, precancel, shown in Figure 2.

A check of the Ohio listings shows that there are six styles for Findlay, but we are lucky because the first one, style 203, matches both the illustration and the written description: "Bold-faced block caps 4mm. High between 1mm. Bars 12.5mm apart."

A 2¢ red George Washington stamp with an Akron, Ohio, precancel is shown in Figure 3.

There are 21 styles listed for Akron, and the first 11 don't match our precancel. The final 10 styles have "L" prefixes.

These styles with the "L" prefixes are called locals because they were printed locally.

Locals are not shown at the front of the catalog in the style descriptions" section, but they are shown at the end of the state listings for the state in which they were used.

Comparing our precancel with the illustrations, we can identify it as being local style L-7E.

For comparison, an 11¢ light blue Rutherford B. Hayes stamp with a style L-8E Akron, Ohio, precancel is also shown in Figure 3.

The Portsmouth, Ohio, precancel on the 8¢ olive-green Ulysses S. Grant stamp shown in Figure 4 differs from the previous examples in that the town name is given with an initial capital letter and the rest of the letters are in lower case.

Using the style descriptions, we can quickly identify it as style 228.

The other broad category of United States precancels is Bureau prints. These precancels were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., often at the same time that the stamp was produced.

The Precancel Stamp Society lists five simple rules for identifying Bureau precancels.

They occur only on rotary-press stamps (except for the 8¢ stamp of 1954).

They occur only on the regular issues of 1923 (perforated gauge 10), 1927-31 (perforated gauge 11 by 10½), 1932 (3¢ Stuart), 1938 (Presidentials series), 1940 (Defense series), 1954 (Liberty series), on subsequent general (not commemorative) issues, and on corresponding coil stamps of all these issues (nearly all printed precancels on coil stamps are Bureau prints).

Bureau precancels always show single lines above and below the city and state, never bars or double lines.

The lines are always in the normal position, except on stamps that are wider than they are tall (on these stamps, the precancel usually reads down).

They are found only in style Nos. 31-33, 41-45, 51, 52, 61-63, 71-76 and 81-87.

Unlike town types, for Bureau prints, both the stamp and the precancel have significance. Bureau precancels are identified by the stamp's Scott catalog number followed by the style number.

The 1¢ green George Washington stamp, U.S. Scott 804, shown with a section from the Precancel Stamp Society Catalog of United States Bureau Precancels, is style 61, so it is precancel No. 804-61.

The 1¢ green Washington coil stamp, Scott 839, also shown in Figure 5 is also style 61, so it is precancel 839-61.

Using the few steps that are required, you can identify any U.S. precancel.

Some of the steps might seem tedious at first, but they are easier than trying to identify Washington-Franklin stamp dies.

Precancel dimensions can vary. As a precancel device wore down, the characters became broader.

Heavy inking can make a line print wider. A muscular or over enthusiastic clerk might occasionally have mashed a precancel print almost beyond recognition.

Expect some variations within the styles. Here is a good rule of thumb: If the precancel on your stamp seems to resemble two or more different styles, it is the cheaper one.

Of course, if you are collecting precancels, you will want to join the Precancel Stamp Society.

In addition to the catalogs named in this article and other handy and invaluable reference material, the society also publishes a monthly journal, Precancel Forum.

Annual membership in the society is $17. Write to James Hirstein, Box 4072, Missoula, MT 59806-4072.