What are precanceled stamps?

Modern precanceled stamps are small denominations that have had cancels applied before entering the mail or being affixed to an envelope.  Mailers are able to affix them to envelopes and pay the difference when they drop them off at the post office.

Precanceled stamps are found in non-denominated coils for: 

  • Presorted First-Class Mail
  • Presorted First-Class Postcards
  • Regular USPS Marketing Mail
  • Nonprofit USPS Marketing Mail

Precanceled stamps are fairly easy to identify as they are often clearer and more distinct than traditional cancels.  The design usually consists of the name of the city and state between two parallel lines. 

By precanceling full sheets of stamps or even adding them to the printing process, the USPS saved time and labor when processing mail.  Precanceled stamps allowed mail to be delivered more quickly and easily as well as offering big mailing companies discounts for using precanceled stamps, presorting, and other methods of readying mail for easy handling by the Post Office.  Precancels also added a level of security to mail as only businesses with special permits were authorized to use them, reducing the likelihood of theft by employees for personal use.

How to Collect Precancels

There are millions of precancels out there, so the options for how you want to collect them are many.  You can build a general collection, choose only Bureau precancels, look for only a specific state or city, search for precancels made using a specific device or devices, or even take on the effort of collecting one precanceled stamp from every city and town that’s ever issued them.  The possibilities are endless!  It can be a challenge to find precancels as they are often mixed in with regular used US stamps, but it can be fun going on a treasure hunt for a specific precancel.  The satisfaction of finally finding it will make all the hard work worth it and keep you coming back for more.

A Timeline of Precanceled Stamps

Precanceled stamps aren’t used often today, but were very common in the 20th century.  However, their use began many years prior to that, even before official regulations or record keeping was in place…

1844 – The earliest known US precancels are produced by Hale & Co. (known as the 1844 Hale Locals).  One of many private postal services shut down by Act of Congress in 1845.  The 1844 Hale Locals consisted of horizontal and vertical black pen markings.  Identified by examining on cover as the markings extend to the edge of the stamp but not to the envelope itself, proving the cancel was applied while the stamp was still part of a sheet.

1844-1880 – Often known as the “Pioneer Period,” there was a wide range of different precancels during this time.  Some were simple pen marks, others were handwriting, grid patterns, the word “PAID,” circular date and city cancels similar to traditional postmarks, and more.  One of the most famous from this era is the Glastonberry G. from the Glastonberry, Connecticut post office.  Other significant examples include the Glen Allen Star from Glen Allen, Virginia, the New York Pearls from New York City, and several different types from Cumberland Maine.

Late 19th to Early 20th Century – Precancels can be broken into two categories:  Bar Cancels (made up of bars, lines, or other geometric pattern with no city reference) and Transitional Precancels (ornate, often ovular or circular, and included city and state of the issuing post office).  Of the two, Transitional Cancels are much easier to identify than bar cancels.

1903-1922– Known as the “Classic Period” and distinguished by increasingly uniform precancels applied to the wide variety of Washington-Franklin stamps issued during these years.

1903 – The first time US postal regulations required precancels to include the city and state be printed between two bold parallel lines.  It took several years for all precancels to follow these standards, but by 1910 nearly all were in compliance.

1911 – On December 5, Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock authorized precancels for use on Christmas parcels.

1913 – The Post Office Department gave individual post offices the option of requesting precancel devices from national headquarters.  At first, two styles were available:  a metal plate (electroplate) or a rubber handstamp.  From this point forward, all precancels fall into one of two categories:

  • Contracted Devices – Precancels applied using standardized devices obtained from national headquarters.
  • Local Devices – Precancels applied using devices purchased by local post offices from local vendors.

1916 – The Post Office Department contracted with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to precancel 4,000,000 stamps each for Augusta, Maine; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Springfield, Massachusetts.  These issues were known as the “Experimentals.” 

1923 – The BEP began full production of precanceled stamps.  Involving the BEP lead to the continued standardization of the precancel.  It also meant the Post Office Department began keeping public records of production numbers.  The very first BEP order of precancels was to New York City and consisted of 20 million 1¢ stamps.

1924 – Originally, the BEP only produced precancels in sheets.  In 1924, they expanded to coils.  Minimum order quantities were 500,000 for sheet stamps or 250,000 for coil stamps.  At this point, there were three categories of precancel:

  • Bureau cancels applied at the BEP
  • Contracted Locals applied at the local post office using a device supplied by national headquarters
  • Locals applied at the local post office using a device obtained locally

April 26, 1924 – It was forbidden to precancel commemorative stamps or sell precanceled stamps to collectors.

August 7, 1924 – Precanceled stamps were authorized for use on First-Class mail under special circumstances.

February 28, 1925 – Postmaster General Harry S. New authorized private precancellation of government-stamped envelopes with the mailer’s postmark.

March 9, 1925 – The use of precanceled stamps on motion picture film cans, laundry cases, egg crates, or other containers designed to be reused for mailing purposes was officially banned.  This order was intended to reduce the use of high denomination precancels ($2 and $5).

1927 – The BEP began using smaller typeface that produced the two- and three-line formats known as “standard types” most commonly associated with precancels.

1928 – On August 7th, the Post Office Department began supplying precanceled 1¢ stamped envelopes (with or without printed return card) to certain mailers.

1929 – Co-ed Dressmakers of New York City became the first to receive a large number of permits for a direct-mail advertising campaign.  New precanceling devices were authorized and supplied with a date of January 12, 1929.

1932 – It became apparent that 25-subject rubber handstamps previously supplied to post offices were warping, being damaged, or wearing out too quickly.  The Post Office Department responded by making the switch to hand-applied electroplates.  Over the summer, over 4,100 post offices were sent new metal precancel devices.

July 1, 1934 – Post offices complained that the 25-subject electroplates used too much ink and made poor impressions.  These devices were also becoming increasingly expensive for the Post Office Department to make.  In response, they reduced the size of the hand-applied electroplates to 10 subjects.

September 25, 1934 – Postmasters were ordered to stop the precancellation of Postage Due stamps.

1937 – Postmasters were banned from issuing precancel permits to collectors, stamp clubs, and stamp dealers unless they were true customers of the post office.

1938 – Postal regulations required precancels with denominations of 7¢ and higher to include the user’s initials and date of use.  Regulations allowed for the use of rubber stamps to apply initials and date to precanceled stamps as long as the type was of the same size as that used for the post office and state, the impression was clear and bold, and produced with permanent black ink.

1941 – The first narrow-spaced BEP printed precancels were shipped to post offices.  The spacing between lines was cut by approximately 3 mm compared to previous precancels, per the request of the Post Office Department.

1943 – Blue and amber precanceled envelopes were discontinued to save money during World War II.

1958 – The Post Office Department accepted a bid from a vinyl-rubber handstamp manufacture for 10-subject devices.  This was part of continued efforts to cut costs.  (10-subject hand electrotype devices were still in use at this point.)

1963 – The introduction of the Zip Code led some local post offices to include the new numbers in their precanceled stamps.  No government-issued precancels included these numbers.

1967 – A revision was made to allow the sale of precancels to collectors by postmasters if certain conditions were met.

1978 – BEP precancels became lines only with no city and state listed, meaning they could be used at any post office across the country.  This effectively made Local precancels obsolete.

2007 – The USPS orders all local precancel devices be destroyed.  Despite the order, some small post offices retained their own devices.

Words to Know

Electroplate – A metal plate used in a press found in Contracted and Local devices.  Most often made up of 100 subjects.  Precancels produced using this process tend to be clear, dark, and uniform in appearance.

Typeset – A Local Device made with set type or linotype slugs applied with a press.  Precancels produced using this process were also dark and uniform, but tend to have more variation since each subject is set up individually.

Mimeograph – Precancels printed locally with a small printing press that forced ink through a stencil onto the paper.  The stencils were made using typewriters, giving the characters on the precancels a distinct appearance resembling any text printed using a typewriter.

City-Type Coils – Contracted Devices that applied precancels to coil stamps with a hand-turned wheel.  Most common in the early 20th century and then fell out of use.  These precancels are vertical and applied in a continuous stream, meaning single stamps may have portions of two or three subjects on them.

Handstamps – Used in post offices where very few precancels were needed.  The Post Office Department produced three types of Contracted Handstamps over the years:  Rubber stamps (through 1932), Metal stamps (1932-1958), and Vinyl stamps (1958 on).  Local Handstamps were made from a wide range of materials.  They have an equally varied appearance and may produce uneven subjects that don’t withstand wear as well and may become distorted over time.

Integral Devices – Local Devices that include the permit-holder’s initials, date, and the precancel.  (Not all precancels with dates and initials were produced by Integral Devices.)

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