Stamp Cancellations - Part 1

Reposing under the glass top of a stamp dealer's counter was a "cover" bearing an ordinary three-cent stamp issued by the United States in 1869. Almost every collector will at once know the stamp we are talking about - it is ultramarine in color and bears a picture of an oldtime locomotive. Such a stamp in itself is not valuable. One may be purchased in used condition for as little as fifty cents - perhaps even less. This particular stamp was unusual because it had been canceled by a picture of a running chicken. Such fancy cancellations were made by postal clerks who had time on their hands to fashion on the ends of bottle corks various designs with which to cancel the mail passing through their hands. Collectors greatly prize these fancy cancellations, and the cover in the dealer's counter was priced at $10.00 - a high price without doubt and the cover remained under the counter for many months before anyone would buy it. Eventually it was sold to someone who really wanted it. A few years later this very same cover was put up at auction and fetched an amazing price - over one thousand dollars!

chicken' stamp
"Running chicken" stamp

A most unusual case, to be sure, but one that points up the importance of cancellations that appear on stamps. Let's look them over and see what it is all about. To begin with, there are usually two marks placed on a letter by the Post Office Department: the postmark, which identifies the town of origin, the day of the month, the year, and even the time of mailing; and, the cancellation, which is the device that renders the stamp attached to the envelope of no further franking value. Modern postmarks and cancellations look like this:

Modern cancellation.

From the beginning of the use of postage stamps in this country in 1847 and for sometime before - the "stampless cover" period - the postmark portion of the canceling device has been almost always of circular shape. Sometimes the postmark and the canceling device were ganged together in one instrument. Sometimes they were two separate instruments. Sometimes, for convenience, postal clerks would bind the two instruments together. In any event the general idea has been that the postmark should fall somewhere on the envelope so as to be readable. Often the clerks would make the postmark perform the double duty of canceling the stamp and serving as a postmark. Often early nineteenth-century postmarks contained only the name of the town and the abbreviation for the State. And, as we have seen, some postmasters cut fancy designs upon corks to "kill" the stamps. Such devices, whether of specific design or only the circular ends of the corks, are called "killers." Only fancy-shaped killers are prized by collectors.

Odd cancellations.