Precanceled Stamps

Getting Started

The ABCs of Precancel Collecting


Precanceled postage stamps, or precancels, may be defined broadly as stamps that have been canceled before being affixed to mail matter. Several narrower definitions have been proposed, but none has universal acceptance. However, most collectors and nearly all catalogs require that the stamps be precanceled with a device made specifically for that purpose.

As you would expect, most such devices precancel several stamps at once, as they are intended to be applied while the stamps are still in sheets or panes. Thus, each stamp in the sheet would show the same legend; generally the name of the town and state between parallel lines. In other words, the legend usually “fits” the stamp.

Saving time is most often given as the reason for precanceling stamps. Long ago, someone recognized that canceling 100 stamps in a sheet would take less time than precanceling individual stamps on 100 pieces of mail. Thus was born the idea of making stamps already canceled available to mailers of large amounts of printed matter, usually advertising. To encourage such mailers to use these precanceled stamps, the Post Office Department offered them a slightly lower postage rate if they would also sort their mail for handling by the post office. Over the years, thousands of mailers have used precanceled stamps on such third-class mail, and many precancels of higher denominations have been used on fourth-class mail.


The Post Office Department authorized the precanceling of stamps in 1887. Nevertheless, 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 and need only concern the specialist.

Some 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. In a few cases, distinguishing characters were used. Glastonbury, Conn., printed a large “G” on the lc denomination of the 1869, 1879, and 1882 issues. Glen Allen, Va., used a five-pointed star distinguishable from other star cancellations by a heavy border surrounding a center of fine parallel lines. All these early attempts at precanceling that do not show the post office name are classed as “Lines and Bars”; although a fruitful field for research by the expert, they are not plentiful and are not listed inmost precancel catalogs.

The wide divergence in practice at this time probably led to the Post Office Department advice of May 23, 1903. It specified that the name of the city and state should appear in two lines, with a plain line above and below. This pattern has been pretty much the rule ever since, largely because the Post Office Department has supplied most precanceling devices since 1913.


Because many post-canceled stamps also show the city and state between parallel lines, they may be confused with precancels. However, all ordinary cancelations are applied by hand, whereas precancels are made by about every conceivable duplicating device. Thus, the possibility of confusion is really limited to handstarnps.

In other words, all overprints showing the name of the city and state PRINTED in deep black printers’ ink are precancels. Hand-applied overprints, whether cancelations or precancelations, usually show grayish ink, and further clues must be used to determine which is the case.

Because precanceling devices usually put the name of the city and state on each of several stamps at once, they generally read straight across the stamp, either horizontally or vertically. Furthermore, the legend is complete on each stamp. If the stamp is still on paper, the precancelation does not run off onto the paper. If a stamp meets all three of these conditions, it is a precancel with few exceptions.

With single stamps off paper, one can not apply these three rules rigorously. Post-cancelations occasionally run straight across the stamp. Well centered cancelations from towns with short names sometimes seem to fit single stamps:

Note that the post-cancelation below is a common type which shows vertical lines that place the inscription in a box. Such cancelations are therefore often designated as “box-killers.” Only a few precanceling devices have such vertical lines, and they have them spaced the width of ordinary-sized stamps.

Another type of post-cancel which looks similar to precancels is the “box-roller”. These again can be distinguished by the vertical lines between town and state, as well as the size usually runs off the paper. This is not a precancel:

Even the rule that the cancelation not run off onto the paper is not foolproof. In emergencies, postal employees will occasionally “precancel” stamps with handstamps made for post-canceling or other purposes. Because stamps so over printed can not be distinguished as precancels once they are removed from the original paper, they are not recognized as precancels. They are usually called “provisionals”; often they consist of just the name of the city and state in one line.

For distinguishing handstamped precancels from post-cancels, there is really no substitute for experience. Until you have gained experience, save any stamp that you think might be a precancel. Meanwhile, study your stamps and whatever precancel literature you may have acquired. Before long, you will be able to decide in 99% of the cases whether or not a given stamp is indeed a valid precancel.


A few terms are useful in describing precancel imprints in words. They have to do with position, continuity from stamp to stamp, and styles of letters.

Although most precancelations run straight across the stamp, they are not always right-side-up, or “normal,” on the stamp. Terms used to describe the position of the imprint are “normal”, “inverted”, “up”, “down” and “diagonal”.

Inverted imprints, or “inverts,” most often occur when a handstamp is unknowingly picked up wrong-way-to by a postal clerk, or when a printer sets up his press to center the imprint on sheets of stamps with selvage on one side and finds some sheets with it on the other. As you would expect, inverts are usually less plentiful than normals. Most imprints reading up or down do so because the device was made to fit the vertical heights, rather than the width, of the stamps. Diagonal imprints other than provisionals, arise either through carelessness or because a sheet of stamps curled or slipped in a printing press.

Stamps showing two impressions in any position are called “doubles”; three impressions, “triples”; and so on. They usually occur because the first impression missed some of the stamps in the sheet. Inasmuch as handstamps can easily be applied in any position, most catalogs only list different positions of imprints when they are mechanically applied.

Continuity between stamps is determined by the lines above and below the name of the city and state. On most precanceling devices, these lines run continuously across the width of the plate. Thus, a single stamp will usually show the lines seeming to run off at both sides. Some precancel devices, however, have a break in the lines between adjoining horizontal subjects; the resulting short lines are called “bars.” An example is:

On precanceling devices that have lines, the lines necessarily end at the extreme left and right sides of the plate; thus, stamps from the edge rows usually show lines running off on one side and the end of a “bar” on the other.

Descriptions of the style of lettering on precanceling devices always specify two things. The first is whether the city and state are shown entirely in capital letters (“caps”), or whether only the first letter of each word is capitalized (“caps and lower case”). The other has to do with the shape of the letters: if the ends of the strokes seem to spread, the letters are said to have “serifs” or be “serifed”; if not, they are called “san-serif,” “block,” or “Gothic” letters.

These letters have Serifs:

These letters do not have Serifs:


Precancels may be conveniently considered as falling into two main classes. those imprinted by mechanical means, and those imprinted by hand. The first group comprises precancels made by feeding the stamps through a printing press, a mimeograph, or some other semi-automatic machine. The second group includes precancels made by stamping, rocking, or rolling a simple inked device upon the stamps by hand. A third category encompasses precancels made by any of these methods but also showing the mailer’s initials and date of use.


Because of the deep black ink and sharpness of the impressions, printed precancels are the easiest to recognize. In the early days, most of them were printed from type set up by the local printer who was given the job of making precancels for the post office. Since 1913, most have been printed from 100-subject electroplates furnished by the Post Office Department to the local postmasters. In addition, since 1923, post offices needing large quantities have been supplied with precancels made in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington.


Precancels printed from set type or linotype slugs are known as “Typesets.” They differ widely in appearance and often reflect the individuality of the printer, as witness the early fancy designs. Each printer used type faces he happened to have in his shop. In some cases, he didn’t have enough type of one style and used two or more in setting 100 individual subjects.

In most cases, typeset precancels are neat and attractive; perhaps because of the printer’s pride in craftsmanship as well as the distinctiveness of design. Nevertheless, because each subject is set up individually, all sorts of variations between subjects can occur. Interest in typeset precancels is heightened by the hunt for misspellings, inverted words or letters, wrong type fonts, and other minor differences.



Precancels printed from electroplates, usually of 100 subjects, are called “Electros.” Although a few precanceling electroplates have been made locally, the majority have been supplied from Washington. These plates have been made for the Post Office Department under contract since 1913. As the contractors changed, so also did the style and appearance of the precanceling imprint on the plates. Also, changes in government specifications at various times have altered the appearance of electro imprints.

With the locally made electroplates, there are about as many different styles as there are plates, much as with typesets. But then, such plates are made by setting up one or more subjects in type and duplicating it. Hence, locally made electros can not always be distinguished from typesets. Some of these plates consist of only 50 subjects: when they are used, half a sheet of stamps is precanceled, the sheet is turned end-for-end, and the other half is printed; inverted unless the plate is also turned. In a few cases, curved plates have been made for use on a Multigraph machine; if the machine is operated with a ribbon rather than printer’s ink, the impressions show lines of fabric as though printed through a typewriter ribbon.

Usual practice has been to use larger letters on plates for towns with shorter names; condensed letters for towns with long names. In some cases, towns with two-word names have been shown in two lines. All told, about 88 different styles of electroplates have been issued from Washington.

Bureau Prints

Bureau Prints are precancels that are printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. They came about when the Post Office Department felt that large quantities of precancels could be prepared cheaper than by hiring local printers to make them from government-issues electroplates. In a real sense, they are varieties of U.S. postage stamps made for restricted use.

Although a few experimental precancels for three cities had been made at the Bureau in 1916, the practice did not become general until 1923. At that time, the manufacture of regular-issue postage stamps of denominations from lc to 10c was switched to high-speed rotary presses. It then became a simple matter to incorporate rotary precanceling plates in the presses and have the finished stamps come out precanceled. The number of post offices using Bureau Prints has grown steadily; nearly 9,500 different Bureau Print precancels have been issued in denominations from 1/2c to $1.00.

Five simple rules will help you to distinguish Bureau Prints (other than the Experimentals) from other printed precancels:

  1. They occur only on rotary-press stamps (except for the 8c of 1954).
  2. They occur only on the regular issues of 1923 (Perf. 10), 1927-31 (Perf. 11×10 1/2), 1932 (3c Stuart), 1938 (Presidential), 1940 (Defense), 1954 (Liberty), 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.)
  3. They always show single lines above and below the city and state; never bars or double lines.
  4. They are always in the normal position, except on stamps that are wider than they are tall; on these stamps, the precancelation usually reads down.

Electroplate Errors

Both local and Bureau Print precancels made from electroplates occasionally show errors. The frequency of such errors in a sheet of 100 stamps depends on how the plate was made. If it were cast from 100 subjects of set type, a given error would occur only once per 100 stamps. If 50 subjects were set up and duplicated to make plates to print 100 stamps; as is the case with Bureau Prints, a single error would occur twice on the sheet. If a row often subjects were set up and duplicated ten times to make the plate, any error would occur ten times on the sheet. The most common type of error is the omission of a period after an abbreviation.


Mimeographed precancels are usually identified easily by the typewriter lettering. Moreover, they often show other characters found on a typewriter keyboard [#, ‘I’, (,), -] in place of the usual lines or bars. As each subject is typed separately, errors and variations are common. Any attempt to imitate mimeographed precancels by direct typing on a stamp can be readily detected; the mimeographed impression does not indent the paper.



One further type of mechanical device has been used extensively for precanceling. It was devised specifically for precanceling coil stamps in rolls, rather than stamps in sheets. Obviously, no flat printing plate could conveniently be used to precancel stamps in strips of 500 or 1,000*. The invention of automatic stamp- affixing machines created a big demand among large mailers for precanceled coil stamps. About 1920, the first machines to precancel rolls of coil stamps were supplied to a few post offices.

In these machines, the stamps were unrolled from one spool, passed beneath an inked roller that did the precanceling, and rewound on another spool. In keeping with the designated form of precancelation, the first machines printed the name of the city and state between bars:


*Privately perforated coil stamps of 1902-22 do exist precanceled with flat electroplates. In these cases, imperforate sheets of stamps were first precanceled and then made into coils by cutting and splicing.

However, sometimes the stamps and the precanceling roller didn’t travel at the same speed, and each stamp did not carry the entire precancelation. To overcome this problem, the customary inscription was changed to a vertical arrangement whereby the city and state usually appear twice on each stamp:





In cases where precancels are needed, but not in large enough quantities to justify having them printed, they are made by hand by post office employees. Devices used to make such precancels have been supplied by the Post Office Deportment since 1913, but some handstamps have also been obtained locally from other sources.

Government-Issued Handstamps

Much as with electroplates, the Post Office Department has had precanceling handstamps made for it under contract since 1913. They also show changes in style and appearance as the contractors changed, and narrower spacings between lines since 1938. Again, wider letters are used for towns with short names, etc. All told about 350 different styles of handstamps have been issued from Washington.

The number of stamps precanceled at one time by these handstamps has changed over the years. The earliest devices seem to have carried ten subjects, 5 horizontal by 2 vertical. Soon thereafter, the pattern became 25 subjects, 5 by 5.

Since 1936, all government-issued handstamps have been of ten subjects, 2 horizontal by 5 vertical. From 1913 to 1932, the printing surface was flat and made of rubber; from 1932 to 1958, handstamps were made of metal with slightly curved surfaces for rocking across an ink pad and across the stamps (These devices are sometimes called “hand electros.”); since 1958, all handstamps have been flat and made of a synthetic rubber called “vinyl,” more resistant to wear and cleaning than the old rubber handstamps.

Locally Made Handstamps

Local handstamps are of three kinds. A number, showing many different designs, were made before the Post Office Department began supplying such devices. Several have since been made to order for local postmasters who couldn’t wait to get a device from Washington or who had trouble making satisfactory impressions with government-issued devices. Many have been made by mail-order houses to precancel stamps they received as remittances for merchandise ordered from them.

These devices differ widely and precancel from one to 25 stamps at one time. Although most of them have flat rubber printing surfaces, a number have been made in the form of a wheel, or roller. Such rollers will continue to repeat the precancelation when rolled across stamps so long as they carry enough ink to make an impression. They usually are distinctive in design and show two or more staggered legends:

If they did not have such novel arrangements of city and state names, they would be nearly impossible to distinguish from ordinary post-canceling rollers.

Handstamped Impressions

With all types of handstamps, the sharpness and blackness of the impression vanes with the kind and amount of ink of the pad, the smoothness and hardness of the surface beneath the stamps, and the skill of the individual doing the job. Moreover, impressions from rubber handstamps vary somewhat in size with the pressure of application, and they sometimes show distortion due to warping of the rubber. As with electros, the frequency of errors depends on how the handstamp was made.


A Post Office Department ruling of July 1, 1938, specified that precanceled stamps above the 6c denomination should also carry the initials of the user and the month and year of use. To make room for this further information on each stamp, many electroplates and all handstamps issued since 1938 have had the narrower spacing between lines. All precancels that carry this added legend are called “Dateds.”

Addition of user’s initials and date can be done either by hand or by printing in some manner. In most cases, little dating handstamps have been made and “blobbed” onto the stamps. Because the possible variety of such dateds is infinite and because they are not especially attractive, they have aroused little interest among precancel collectors. On the other hand, because the variety of dates by press printing or mimeographing is more limited and the resulting precancels are neat, they are avidly collected.

When the dating is done by the same device that does the precanceling, the precancels are called “Integrals.” Only a few dozen mailers use enough precancels to justify the expense of having integral devices made. Integrals are usually handstamps:

However, a few distinctive ones have been made from set type:

Because they include the precancelation, they are recognized as types of precancels and are collected by those who do not collect precancels with dates added separately.


The United States wasn’t the only country to discover the benefits of precancels in processing large amounts of mail. Several other countries also precanceled their stamps. Below are examples of each type to help the beginner spot them.






LUXEMBOURG (special thanks to Gary Little for the Pix)





The preceding survey of precancels may well leave you with the impression that precancel collecting is a big field. And so it is; big enough to suit the fancy of about every kind of collector. Some folks like to collect in a boundless field; some like to keep their interests broad but limit their collections to samples of larger areas; some like to limit their attention to smaller fields where they can see a chance of completion. Precancel collections are of all types, and some shadings in between. A few words about popular ways of collecting may help you decide how you would like to build your personal collection.


Collecting all varieties of precancels, other than dateds, 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 such catalog was the Hoover Standard Catalogs last issued in 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 to the beginner as the best way to learn about and gain experience in precancels. Even though one then narrows the interest in any way desired, the collector will have a sound background in the whole field.


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. Complete catalogs are issued frequently, and specially printed albums are available. Minor variations, repaired plates, and the like also furnish ample challenge to the person who likes to study stamps under a magnifying glass.


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.


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 21,100 precancels. For this kind of collection, no catalogs and little knowledge of precancels are needed. Lists of precanceling towns have been published from time to time, but new towns are being added every month. Lest town collecting seem too simple, bear in mind that many towns are scarce and no collection contains them all.

In recent years, a popular narrowing of town collecting has been limiting one’s collection to towns no longer in existence with the exact imprint in vogue formerly. Some of these towns represent post offices that have simply been discontinued; others represent a change in official spelling on from one word to two; all such towns are popularly known as “Ghost Towns.” There are about 2,000 of them.

When town collecting slows down, many collectors expand their interests to types. In such a collection, they try to get one stamp imprinted with each precanceling device that has been used. Collecting types requires nearly as broad a knowledge of precancels as general collecting. In a sense, it is general collecting in miniature.  The PSS Town & Type Catalogue is the best source of information for the town & type collector.


A good many other ways of collecting part of the precancel field appeal to individuals with widely differing tastes. Some folks collect precancels on only one issue of U.S. stamps: Washington Bicentennials, National Parks, Defense issue, Postage Dues, etc. Others collect all precancels from towns with Indian names, religious names, boys’ names, etc. Still others collect towns along a certain river, railroad, on transcontinental highway. Some collect precancel commemoratives on airmail stamps-although neither is supposed to be precanceled. Others collect all precancels in a particular style of overprint; probably the most popular have been the Double-Line Electros (DLEs).

Probably no other field of stamp collecting offers as much opportunity for individuality in collecting as does precancels


Whatever you decide to collect in the precancel field, you will come to derive much pleasure from the hobby. This statement is doubly true if you don’t just accumulate precancels but also study them. Few experiences are as rewarding as discovering something that no one else noticed before. Precancels are about as fertile a field for such discovery as there is.

A word of warning: Don’t spoil your fun by becoming a “condition crank.” Of course, we all want stamps in fine condition, but many precancels just don’t exist that way. Your best bet is to collect whatever copies come along and replace them with better copies when and if you can. However, don’t pay fancy prices for poor copies until you learn which are really scarce in any condition.

You will further increase your enjoyment of precancels by personal contacts with other collectors. Such contacts are easy to make through membership in thePrecancel Stamp Society and in active local groups.

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