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Guide to USA Precancels

What are Precancels?

Pre-cancelled stamps, or precancels, were introduced by various countries as a means of saving time, reducing costs in handling certain classes of mail and as a deterrent to theft.

This was done by allowing authorised users to affix stamps already cancelled on to bulk mail, thus avoiding a time-consuming step in processing at the post office. Pre-cancelled items had to be handed in at a post office and only the holder of the license was able to do so.

Countries which have issued precancels have different regulations governing their use. In most countries, the general public are not permitted to use them; only authorised users may do so. Although there are great variations in style, precancels are usually definitive stamps overprinted with a town name, state or province, or some other distinctive marking, which shows that they have been cancelled prior to mailing. Apart from the United States, which is by far the largest precancel issuing country, substantial use of the system has been made by Canada, Belgium, France and Monaco. Other countries have used precancels on an experimental or limited basis; these include Holland, Luxembourg, Algeria, Tunisia, Hungary, Turkey, Danzig, Austria, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, United Nations and even Great Britain.

USA Precancels 

The US Post Office Department first authorized the precanceling of stamps in 1887. A few cases of “unofficial” precanceling occurred earlier. They usually consisted of lines drawn across the stamps with a pen or brush. Obviously, they can only be distinguished from ordinary used stamps when they are on original cover. Moreover, the return address of the mailer gives the only clue to the post office of origin. Such covers are scarce.

Most post offices turned to the printing press to replace pen strokes and the like. What was printed on the stamps was still largely narrow or wide lines or slugs not easily identified as to post office. All early attempts at precanceling do not show the post office name are classed as “Lines and Bars” or “Silent” precancels. By the 1890s, the notion of including the post office name had taken hold. Some precancels had only the city name without including the state. Some offices included month and year dates for a period of time.

Post Office Circular of 1903

Because of a wide divergence in practice, the Post Office Department released a circular on May 26, 1903. It specified that the name of the post office and state between two parallel heavy black lines be printed across the face of each stamp. This pattern has been pretty much the rule ever since, because the Post Office Department and US Postal Service have supplied most precanceling devices since 1913.

General Collecting

Collecting all varieties of precancels is known as “General Collecting.” Although it is an extremely large field, many collectors seem to enjoy it because they can so easily add items to their collections.

No single current catalog lists all of the millions of stamps that have been precanceled. The last general catalog for the entire United States was the 16thedition of the Hoover Brothers Official Precancel Stamp Catalog, issued in two volumes dated 1937 and 1940.

General collections may be mounted in many ways. A good way to start is to set aside a page for each state. Then, when you have acquired several varieties from one town, add a page for that town. Later on, you may find you have many varieties that show the same style or type of precancelation from the town; you can then put these items on a separate page. As you become familiar with precancel types, you may want to put your Bureau Prints on separate pages from the local city-types.

General collecting is highly recommended.

Bureau Prints

Of the narrower fields of precancel collecting, perhaps the most popular is Bureau Prints. It appeals especially to the individual who likes to collect in a well-mapped area. Probably no other field of stamp collecting is so well documented; government records show what Bureau Prints have been made and how many copies of each. A current catalog is available, as are specially printed albums. Minor variations, repaired plates, and the like also furnish ample challenge to the person who likes to study stamps under a magnifying glass.

Precancels of One State

A popular way of narrowing the field of general collecting is to collect the precancels of one or more states that interest you. Individual catalogs are available for many states; in the absence of official records for local precancels, they list all varieties that were known to the editor when they went to press. If you collect only a few states, you can trade other precancels that come your way for new ones from your pet states. You can thus build up a better showing faster than in general collecting.

Towns and Types

Another way to narrow the precancel field is to collect just one precancel from each town that has issued them. A complete town collection would contain over 21,300 precancels. For this kind of collection, little knowledge of precancel types is needed. Lest town collecting seem too simple, bear in mind that many towns are scarce and no collection contains them all.

The Precancel Stamp Society’s Town and Type Catalog of the United States and Territories is the best source of information for the town & type collector. There are over 42,300 types listed.

Details of this article were taken from the advice published by the Precancel Stamp Society of Great Britain. A big thank you to the committee and authors.

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