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US Fancy Cancels

and a bit of postal history to explain them

by Bruce Dangremond
15th of January 2012

My forty-year interest in stamp collecting has ultimately come to focus upon US fancy cancellations on the 3-cent stamps of the civil war era. I am often asked by friends, of the non-philatelic persuasion, the question; “what are fancy cancels and where did they come from”? It’s a great question because the answer involves delving into the core of our hobby. It requires exploring US postal history and it leads to a discussion of the origin of many terms peculiar to our hobby.  It’s a story I enjoy telling. It’s a story I constantly revise, as I learn more from fellow collectors and from philatelic literature.

In the earliest years of our country, before it was the United Sates Of America, many letters carried no evidence of having passed through the British colonial postal system. That’s because the colonial system prior to the early 1700’s handled mostly the correspondence of colonial government officials. Private correspondence was mostly between the colonists and loved ones in their motherlands in Europe. Few examples of the early British colonial postal system exit today.  Correspondence between ordinary colonialists was carried privately. By the early to mid 1700s, routes between major cities had been established. Horsemen, coach lines and boat captains had been hired to carry the mail. During this period of the colonial system, most postal markings, if any, consisted of a city name where the mail originated and sometimes a date. These were usually hand written by postal agents. Only a few postal facilities in the largest cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia) used a hand stamp to so mark the mail.  These are referred to as “straight line” city marks because they were applied in one, or sometimes two, lines across the face (address side) of a letter. However, many letters were still carried privately and did not pass through the colonial system.

Below is a letter sent from Barcelona, Spain to Marblehead New England (later Marblehead, Massachusetts). This letter is dated 1771 and was carried by a ship (the contents indicate this).  The captain or his agent probably did so for a small fee collected from the sender. The letter was most likely delivered to a pre-arranged point (store, tavern, bank, etc.) in the port of entry, Marblehead. It was picked up there by the addressee or his agent. There is no mark on the outside to indicate any contact with postal authorities.

early letter

Notice that this letter has no envelope. The sheets of paper were folded and sealed in such a way as to make its own envelope. The back of the last sheet served as a place to write an address. These are called “folded letter sheets” or “FLS” for short.  In 1771 paper was expensive, and envelopes weren’t available. Indeed, many letter writers of the early years wrote in two different 90-degree orientations on a sheet of paper with pen & ink in an effort to save the cost of additional sheets. Such letters are very difficult to read. They must have been nearly impossible to read by the light given off from candle or oil lantern.

The American provisional postal system was first established in 1775 in defiance of the British system. Benjamin Franklin was appointed Postmaster General, and charged with organizing a postal system quickly. Routes were chosen and agents appointed to handle the mail.  

 Finally, in 1788 Congress met under the new constitution to adopt a temporary postal act. The postal system of the United States, therefore, was officially born on September 22, 1788 to handle the correspondence of “all citizens”. Of course in the early days of the US postal system, most post offices were still located inside banks, taverns and stores. Employees of these establishments served as postmasters and postal clerks in addition to performing their usual duties. Only in the largest cities were buildings, or parts of buildings, dedicated solely to postal work with full-time personnel.  In the early years there wasn’t much official postal equipment either. Most correspondence was processed and marked by postal clerks using pen and ink.

 Below is an example of a typical FLS mailed from Philadelphia to New York City in 1799. Notice the postage rate is 12½ cents. This was the postal rate for a letter traveling 90 to 150 miles  (Postal act May 1799) and this rate was hand written in ink in the upper right corner of this FLS. Collectors call this a “manuscript”, or hand written, rate. Philadelphia was one of the largest cities at the time and had a well-equipped post office. 


Notice the faint circular hand stamp that was applied at the left upper edge of this letter. Inside the circle it reads, “PHI 16 MY” which stands for “Philadelphia May 16” and is the name of the originating post office and date the letter was received by the post office. This was an official hand stamp used by the post office and the mark is known by collectors today as a “CDS” which stands for “city date stamp”. These were the earliest hand stamps used by US post offices. Eventually, even the smallest postal stations had these hand stamps.

There is something else to notice about the letter above.  Its sender did not prepay this letter’s rate of 12½ cents at time it was taken to the post office. Rather, the receiver of the letter in New York had to pay 12½ cents. How do we know this?  Because a manuscript or hand stamped  “paid” does not appear on the front to indicate the sender prepaid the rate. Some letters show a manuscript or hand stamped “free” to indicate that the individual had free “franking” (postage) privileges. Free franking privileges were granted to state and federal officials (governors, judges, the president, etc.) and postmasters.

 As the US postal system matured, additional hand stamps were acquired by post offices to eliminate the time consuming need of manually marking letters. The letter below was sent from Birmingham, Michigan to Albany, NY on June 25 1849.

Birmingham 1847

Notice the detailed blue CDS hand stamp used at the Birmingham post office. This letter illustrates a couple of changes occurring in the fifty years since the previous letter was sent though the postal system. First, this letter sender used an envelope; it is not a FLS like the previous letter. This envelope is known as a “stampless cover”. Second, even though Birmingham was a much smaller town than Philadelphia, by this time its post office was equipped with hand stamps.

With the Postal Act of July 1, 1845, the rate for a ½ ounce letter traveling over 300 miles was 10 cents. Look at the beautiful fancy blue box & “10” rate hand stamp that was applied to this letter. And, the blue “PAID” hand stamp showing this letter was prepaid. This cover illustrates how the use of hand stamps had replaced most manuscript markings.

In 1847 the first US postage stamps were sold to customers at post offices. The US Post Office Department did so for three reasons. First, it wanted to encourage customers to prepay their letters. Unclaimed unpaid letters were becoming a problem.   Second, stamps made bookkeeping at the post office easier. If the office started with $1,000 face value in stamps at the beginning of the month, received  $500 in new stamps and it later had only $800 in stamp inventory, $700 in postage stamp sales had occurred. If $700 in cash wasn’t accounted for, something was terrible wrong. Third, customers could just drop off letters bearing postage stamps. Postal clerks did not have to deal with everyone who came to the post office to mail a letter, only those who purchased stamps or those who did not prepay. 

There is a major problem with pre-paid postage stamps, however.  The receiver of a letter can remove the stamp and re-use it on another letter without paying the post office!  Hence arose the need to “cancel” or “kill” postage stamps at the sending post office thereby rendering them useless as future postage. One of the first methods of cancellation was with pen and ink. Below is a letter showing such a “manuscript cancel”.

San Jose

First, note that two 3-cent stamps were used to pre-pay this letter. At the time, the rate for a half-ounce letter going over 3,000 miles was six cents if prepaid. Later, the Stamp Act of March 3, 1855 made the use of pre-paid postage stamps on all domestic mail compulsory. Note also that three long pen strokes were used to cancel these stamps. Another interesting aspect of this letter is that it took exactly 30 days for it to travel from San Jose, California to Philadelphia. The CDS shows it was sent on “FEB 15”. A note written by its receiver at the top of the cover reads “Rec.d 3rd. mo. 15th”. This was rather unusual. Most mail of this type went by ship from the west coast of California around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America up to the eastern seaboard eventually reaching port cities of the USA, taking much longer than one month. This letter was probably carried overland by stagecoach, however no markings indicate that was the case. 

Just as with manuscript rates, manuscript cancels were time consuming to apply. One day someone at a post office undoubtedly asked himself, why not use the hand stamps already in use to cancel stamps and save time?

The letter below shows the very common practice of using the CDS to cancel a stamp.

CDS Cancel

 Note on this letter how the CDS was used twice; once to identify the originating post office (as required) and once more to cancel the stamp. This was very efficient for the postal clerk and a very common method of canceling stamps at the time; many examples exist.

 But, how about all those other hand stamps that could have been used at the post office to cancel stamps?  The term “fancy cancel” can be defined as any cancellation that is not a manuscript or CDS cancel applied to a postage stamp prior to the use of machine-applied cancels. Some collectors would argue that even manuscript and CDS cancels are fancy cancels. Others would argue that to exclude certain machine-applied cancellations is a mistake.  

 One of the earliest hand stamps used in post offices to cancel postage stamps was the prepaid (“PAID”) hand stamp. Almost all post offices used them. The stamps below were canceled in such a way.

PAID Cancels

The last three stamps shown above are the 3-cent stamps first issued in 1861, which I personally feel comprise the largest group of fancy cancels on a single postage stamp.   I have seen the first four “PAID” cancels on FLS and stampless covers. Each was originally intended to indicate prepaid postage. Obviously, if a stamp was applied to a letter it was prepaid. Therefore, the only reason to use a prepaid hand stamp is to cancel the postage stamp. Look at how truly fancy the last cancel is with a negative “PAID”, stars and ribbons, or shield.

The other hand stamps most prevalent in post offices where those used to indicate postal rates. Stamps canceled with rate hand stamps are, therefore, very common on early postage stamps.

 Rate Cancels

Here too, if a 3-cent postage stamp was applied to a letter, the rate hand stamp used to obliterate the postage stamp had no numerical significance whatsoever. It was merely the result of whichever hand stamp the postal clerk chose as his canceling device.

double 5 strikes

 The letter above is addressed to “Samuel F. Iayne, Agent of Sanitary Commission, Army of the Potomac, Washington, D.C.” The date hand written by the receiver of the letter on left edge is “July 27, 1864”.  Written, therefore, at the height of the civil war.  Note the double strike of a 5-cent rate hand stamp used to cancel this postage stamp, a somewhat unusual usage.

There were other hand stamps also used as canceling devices, whose original purpose was not to cancel postage stamps. These would include: “FREE”, “STEAMBOAT”, “ALL PAID”, “OVERLAND”, and “WAY”.  Undoubtedly, there are others that this author has not seen.


The leftmost stamp faintly shows the word “free”. A free franking privilege hand stamp produced its cancellation.  And it is probably a “double strike” as it appears to have been applied twice. The second stamp shows the use of a steamship hand stamp as a canceling device. The word “steam” can be seen diagonally on this stamp. In this case, the letter may indeed have been transported by steamship.

Local post offices eventually began acquiring and using hand stamps specifically designed to cancel or “kill” postage stamps.

 target cancels

One very common hand stamp intended to be a “killer” produced what is now known as a “target cancel”, a series of concentric rings. Note, in the target cancels on the stamps shown above, the different number of rings, their thicknesses, the type and size of bull’s-eye. The target cancel was a very common cancel and was used for many years. Most of these hand stamps where professionally made by local engravers and sold to post offices. Shown above are target cancels used on various stamps issued from 1861 to 1887. Target cancels have even been found on stamps of the early 20th century.

 grid cancels

 Another very common and diverse category of fancy cancellations is known as the “grid” cancels. Generally, it can be described as a series of closely spaced lines, dots, squares, diamonds, or other shapes that form a grid-like pattern. In the image above, the first two cancels on the left are known as "bar-grid" cancels and were most likely commercially produced for post office use. The next three grid cancels were produced by postal employees; carved from wood (Notice the sharp well-defined edges).  Cancellation devices were also fashioned by inventive postal clerks and postmasters from cork bottle stoppers. The last two stamps above are of this type. They are referred to as "cork cancels".  It should be pointed out, however, that it is extremely difficult to determine the origin of many fancy cancels and equally difficult to determine the material used to fashion them. Of one fact there can be little doubt:  postal clerks took great pride in making and using distinctive cancellations. They were responsible for producing the fancy cancels that are most prized by collectors today.

 Letter cancels

The images above are stamps with letter cancels. Often these represented attempts by postal employees to uniquely identify their post office. The first three stamps are the “H” cancel used in Hudsonville, Michigan, the “L” cancel of Lockport, New York, and the fancy “T” cancel of Titusville, Pennsylvania.  The last stamp with a double “S” cancel until recently remained a mystery to me. It is not listed in any source I have checked and I believed it was a steamship mark. Then I saw exactly the same cancel in a recent eBay auction. The seller informed me it was a Saratoga Springs, NY cancel. He had seen it on cover with a CDS.

 Geometric Cancels

The geometric type cancellation is a large category that includes many designs not otherwise easily described. The leftmost stamp above is a circular design cancellation used in the South Framingham post office of Massachusetts. The second stamp cancel is the “pinwheel” design from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The third stamp shows the “stovepipe” cancel used in Leominster, Massachusetts. The fourth stamp is a radial type cancellation used in the post office of Irwin Station, Pennsylvania. The last stamp has a cancel that is similar to many other radial designs of the period. This one is believed to be the cancel used in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Some of the most elaborate geometric cancels (not shown here) were used to cancel high value stamps on foreign mail going from the New York City post office to overseas destinations.

star cancels 

The star cancellation is also a large category of fancy cancels used in many post offices. In the image above, the leftmost stamp cancellation is a negative five-point star in a solid disk and was used in the Boston post office. The second cancel is a smaller solid five-point star inside a ring used in Londonderry, Vermont. The third star cancel is on a Scott #88 stamp (see grill in star) used in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania. The fourth stamp shows a negative five-point star in a solid blue ink pentagon. The post office is unknown. The last stamp shows a beautiful large negative five-point star in a solid disk with additional small negative dots. It was a cancellation used in the post office of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Patriotic Cancel 

The civil war was responsible for the series of stamps issued in 1861, of which the 3-cent Scott #65 is its most profuse member. To express allegiance with the union, many patriotic symbols were used as cancellation designs on letters bearing this stamp in northern post offices. The first stamp has a cancel showing “US” inside a simple shield from the post office in Albany, New York. The second stamp has a cancellation with a “US” and stars in a shield used in Boston, Massachusetts. The third stamp sports the much sought after fancy shield of Medalia, New York. The last stamp shows another large shield cancel. This one is from the post office in Taunton, Massachusetts.

There are many other categories of fancy cancels, too many categories for me to show here. Instead, I have chosen a group of cancels from various categories, gathered here to demonstrate the variety of interesting, popular and desirable cancels.


The first stamp shows the fancy “R” cancellation of Rockville, Connecticut. The second is the “spearhead” cancel of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The middle stamp is the very sought after “open book” cancel of Rutland, Vermont. Fourth, is known as the “prison bar” cancel of Columbus, Ohio. The fifth stamp above shows one of the most desirable fancy cancels in our hobby. It is the “devil and pitchfork” cancel of West Meriden, Connecticut. It illustrates an important point about collecting fancy cancels. This stamp without a fancy cancel would be worthless and not suitable for most collections because of the large piece missing on the right edge. It would be considered a faulty “space-filler” at best. But the cancellation is so desired by most collectors,  many would be proud to have it in their collection.

complex group 2 

The first stamp above shows the “skull and crossbones” cancel of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Second is the “shield in heart” cancel of New York, New York. The third stamp shows an almost perfect strike of the “clover” cancel of Boston, which some collectors believe may be an early “precancel”. A cancellation applied to stamps at the post office prior to being sold, is called a precancel. This was done for mass mailings, like circulars & newspapers, so postal employees would not have to cancel each piece individually when they were delivered to the post office.

The fourth stamp illustrates a beautiful blue strike of a Masonic “square and compass” thought to be from the post office in Louisville, Kentucky. This is one of many fraternal organizations promoted on fancy cancellations of the period. Finally shown is a stamp whose cancel is of unknown origin. This is what makes collecting fancy cancels so interesting for me. Is this a bull inside a ring, as I think? Or is it a bird, bat, flower or insect in a ring? Or is it simply a killer whose blob of ink represents nothing at all? I have yet to find it listed in any reference. Perhaps one of you can see something in it that I can’t. Or, maybe you have seen it listed somewhere, or you have one in your collection. If so, let me know.  

It could be a fake! And that is another important point about collecting fancy cancels. There are those who produce fakes in our hobby; cancellations are no exception. Be wary and get an another (expert if possible) opinion. Here are two more fancy cancels in my collection which I believe could be fakes.

fake 1 fake 2

They are just too perfect. Although the stamp on the left is similar to the "picture frame" cancel of Homer, New York, its proportions are different. Again, if you own one of these same cancels or have seen them, please let me know.

Fancy cancels are my area of specialization and I continue to learn and be surprised almost daily.  It is a pursuit that has kept my interest for many years and I highly recommend it to others.

 If you wish to pursue collecting fancy cancels, here are some hints. USA Scott #65 (and all stamps that share the A25 design, including Scott #s 64, 65, 74, 83, 88, and 94) is a stamp that displays a great number and variety of fancy cancels. Although it is by no means the only stamp that does so, it is the most affordable of the period.

Two references that have helped me identify fancy cancels are:

United States Cancellations 1845-1869 by Hubert C, Skinner and Amos Eno

Billig’s Philatelic Handbook Volume 33, Th Century United States Fancy Cancellations.

Neither book is currently available from publishers, but used copies can be purchased occasionally on ebay or at traditional philatelic auctions. Some larger libraries may also have them on their shelves. Your inquiries, criticisms and comments are always welcome.  

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