Cancellation (mail)

1929 machine cancellation used to cancel 1d stamp on first flight cover from Nassau to Miami
Numeral 70 identifying Boyle, diamond bars for Ireland

A cancellation (or cancel for short; French: "oblitération") is a postal marking applied on a postage stamp or postal stationery to deface the stamp and prevent its re-use. Cancellations come in a huge variety of designs, shapes, sizes and colors. Modern United States cancellations commonly include the date and post office location where the stamps were mailed, in addition to lines or bars designed to cover the stamp itself. The term "postal marking" sometimes is used to refer specifically to the part that contains the date and posting location, although the term often is used interchangeably with "cancellation."[1] The portion of a cancellation that is designed to deface the stamp and does not contain writing is also called the "obliteration"[2] or killer. Some stamps are issued pre-cancelled with a printed or stamped cancellation and do not need to have a cancellation added. Cancellations can affect the value of stamps to collectors, positively or negatively. The cancellations of some countries have been extensively studied by philatelists and many stamp collectors and postal history collectors collect cancellations in addition to the stamps themselves.


The first adhesive postage stamp was the Penny Black, issued in 1840 by Great Britain. The postal authorities recognized there must be a method for preventing reuse of the stamps and simultaneously issued handstamps for use to apply cancellations to the stamps on the envelopes as they passed through the postal system.[3] The cancels were handmade and depicted a Maltese cross design. Initially, the ink used was red, but it was found that this could be cleaned off and the stamps reused, and so after a series of experiments, early in 1841 black cancelling ink was used, which was more permanent. The color of the stamps was also changed to red-brown so as to ensure that the cancellation showed clearly.[3]

Britain soon abandoned the Maltese crosses and in 1844 began to employ cancellations displaying numbers which referred to the location of mailing.[4] A similar scheme was used for British stamps used abroad in its colonies and foreign postal services, with locations being assigned a specific letter followed by a number, such as A01 used in Kingston, Jamaica, or D22 for Venezuela.[5]

An 1851 U.S. stamp with a pen cancellation.

Early cancellations were all applied by hand, commonly using hand stamps. Where hand stamps were not available, stamps often were cancelled by marking over the stamp with pen, such as writing an "x". Pen cancellations were used in the United States into the 1880s,[6] and in a sense continue to this day, when a postal clerk notices a stamp has escaped cancellation and marks it with a ball point pen or marker.

1859 stamp of Sicily with deferential cancellation designed not to deface the "sacred image" of King Ferdinand II[7]

In the early period of the issuance of postage stamps in the United States a number of patents were issued for cancelling devices or machines that increased (or were purported to increase) the difficulty of washing off and reusing postage stamps. These methods generally involved the scraping or cutting-away of part of the stamp, or perhaps punching a hole through its middle. (These forms of cancellation must be distinguished from perfins, a series of small holes punched in stamps, typically by private companies as an anti-theft device.)

High speed cancellation machines were first used in Boston between 1880–1890 and subsequently throughout the country.[6]

Today, cancellations may either be applied by hand or machine. Hand cancellation is often used when sending unusually shaped mail or formal mail (e.g., wedding invitations) to avoid damage caused by machine cancellation.

Postal meter stamps and similar modern printed to order stamps are not ordinarily cancelled by postal authorities because such stamps bear the date produced and can not readily be re-used.

Types of cancellations

Fancy cancel on 1872 Canada stamp
U.S.1938 precancelled stamp

Pictorial and special cancellations

Pictorial cancellation. This post box is located at a historical site Somnathpur in Karnataka, India. Letters posted in this box will receive a special cancellation with an image of the Kesava temple.

The United States Postal Service distinguishes between special cancellations which have a caption publicizing an event,[15] and pictorial cancellations, which contain an image of some sort.[16] Special cancellations are essentially a type of slogan cancellations.

A 1929 pictorial cancellation promoting the use of airmail.

In the United States, official pictorial cancellations are almost invariably applied at special "stations", i.e., post offices existing only for a limited time, usually one day, at special events, although there are frequently other pictorial cancellations that are not officially described as such — they are among what are called special cancellations and are special die-hubs added to machine cancels, which usually contain merely a slogan but sometimes contain a picture. There are a very few exceptions in which a particular post office uses a pictorial cancellation on all its mail.

Cancellation showing Douglas Isle of Man and Douglas DC 3.

The range of allowable subjects is very broad, and may include a variety of commercial tie-ins, such as to movie characters.

Canada Post uses automated cancellations with computer-printed messaging. In this way, the corporation can automatically print promotional messages on each envelope while simultaneously cancelling the piece of mail. Messages change throughout the year, and include seasonal messages ("Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noel") and promotional messages (such as Canada Post's web address).

Other post offices such as the Isle of Man Philatelic Bureau also create special pictorial cancellations as they did in 1985 to mark the anniversary of the aircraft Douglas DC-3. A special handstamp was created [17] depicting a Dakota flying "free" and not "boxed in".[18]


Generalist stamp collectors usually prefer lightly cancelled stamps which have the postmark on a corner or small portion of the stamp without obscuring the stamp itself, which ordinarily are more valuable than heavily-cancelled stamps.[19] In order to get the postal clerk to cancel the stamps lightly, collectors may rubber-stamp or write "philatelic mail" on the envelope.

Cancellations may significantly affect the value of the stamps. Many stamps are rarer, and consequently much more expensive, in unused condition, such as the Penny Black, which in 1999, catalogued for $1,900 mint and $110 used.[20] The reverse is true for some stamps, such as the hyperinflation stamps of Germany, which may be worth many times more if genuinely postally used.[21] Where stamps are much more valuable in used condition than unused, it may be advisable to have such stamps expertised to confirm that the cancellation is genuine and contemporary.[21]

Some stamp collectors are interested in the cancellations themselves, on or off cover, of a particular country or issue, or collect a specific type of cancellation, such as fancy cancels. There have been many published studies of the cancellations of many countries, some of which are listed below. Collectors who are interested in the cancellations themselves prefer bold, readable cancellations. Cancellations also are an integral part of the collection of postal history.

Historically, collectors disliked pen cancels and removed many of them, making the stamp appear unused or to add a fake cancellation.[6] Today, early United States pen cancelled stamps still are worth considerably less than examples with hand stamped cancels.[22]

Collectors generally view modern cancelled-to-order stamps or CTOs as philatelic junk, and they rarely have any significant value.[23] Stamp catalogs commonly state whether their values for used stamps are for CTOs or for postally used examples. For example, the Scott Catalog used value listings for the German Democratic Republic are for CTOs from 1950 through mid-1990, over 2700 stamps.[24]


Forgers have not only manufactured stamps for the philatelic market, they have added forged cancellations to those stamps. This was especially common in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when huge numbers of inexpensive stamps were forged for the packet trade.[25]

Forged cancellations have also been applied to genuine stamps, in cases where the stamps are worth much more postally used. In addition, where rare cancellations are desired by collectors, those cancellations have also been forged.

Cancellations may also be used to prove that certain philatelic items are genuine. For example, forgers have fabricated many supposedly valuable postal covers by adding genuine stamps and forged postal markings to pre-stamp covers.[26] A cover can be shown to be genuine if a genuine cancellation "ties" the stamp or stamps to the cover; that is, if a genuine cancellation runs continuously over the stamp and adjacent portion of the envelope, although one still may need to rule out the possibility that the cancellation was added later. Similarly, stamps that were cut in parts and used for a portion of the full value as splits can only be shown to have been so used if a genuine cancel ties the stamp to the cover or piece of cover.

Studies of cancellations

Great Britain, Ireland & Commonwealth

United States





German States


South America


See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Postmarks.



References and sources

  1. L.N. Williams, Fundamentals of Philately (American Philatelic Society, State College, PA rev. ed. 1990) p. 20.
  2. 1 2 3 Scott US p. 30A.
  3. 1 2 Stanley Gibbons, p. 42.
  4. Stanley Gibbons, pp. 51-55.
  5. Stanely Gibbons, Stamp Catalogue, Part 1, British Commonwealth 1987, London & Ringwood (89th ed. 1986), pp. GB65-GB72.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Scott US p. 29A.
  7. Franco Filanci, Lettera & Francobollo: Raccontiamola giusta Reggiani, Italy 2008, p. 16.
  8. Glossary of Stamp Collecting Terms.
  9. Lee Henry Cornell, The tale of the kicking mule; a handbook dealing with the famous kicking mule cancellation used in several western towns in the "eighties" (Printcraft Shop, Wichita 1949).
  10. Glossary of Philatelic Terms
  11. Postal cancel art
  12. Glossary of Philatelic Terms
  13. Glossary of Philatelic Terms
  14. There are regulations pertaining to the special cancellations. See Philatelic (Stamp Collecting) Services: Special Cancellations (retrieved 15 June 2007)
  15. USPS: Celebrating With Pictorial Postmarks, archived from the original on May 9, 2009
  16. Top-flight honour for schoolboy - Front Page - Lincolnshire Standard - 13 December 1985
  17. Special Dakota Cover Inside Information Card - Isle of Man Philatelic Bureau - 17 December 1985
  18. See, e.g., Scott Catalogue, note preceding Great Britain listings.
  19. Scott Catalogue, Great Britain, no. 1.
  20. 1 2 Scott Catalogue, Germany, no. 161-321 and note preceding no.161.
  21. See, e.g, Scott US values for nos. 1-39.
  22. "Postmarks". Archived from the original on March 18, 2015. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  23. Scott 1999 Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, Vol. 3 Germany listings, note preceding no. 68.
  24. See generally, R.B. Earée, Album Weeds; How to Detect Forged Stamps (3d Ed. reprint, Manuka-Ainslie Press, Acton, Canberra n.d.).
  25. See, e.g., Jean-François Brun, Out-Foxing the Fakers (American Philatelic Society, State College, PA 1993), Chapter 6.
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