The Lore of Philatelic History: FANCY CANCELS
Since they were first hand-carved in the mid-1800's, philatelists have always had a major love affair with the United States fancy cancel. And well they should! They represent some of the most enchanting history in the annals of American philately.


The Waterbury, Conn., "Woman In Snood" cancel crafted by Postmaster John W. Hill in the late 1860s.

Prior to the 1890s when the U.S. Post Office Department stipulated that postmasters could only use manufactured "killers" approved by them for the obliteration of postage stamps on mail, thousands of clerks and postmasters from small towns to large cities spent their leisure hours preparing their own unique cancel devices. It was a whimsical sort of activity where illustrative cancels were crafted to reflect the ideas, opinions, events and society in general that were on the minds of the postal craftsmen.

John W. Hill, Postmaster of Waterbury, Connecticut, was perhaps the best known of these craftsmen—though most such cancel carvers remain unknown us today. Hill produced especially distinctive fancy cancels carved from cork during the period from the Civil War until well into the 1880's. His "Running Chicken" is the most highly-prized of all U.S. 19th century cancels—in use for only a few days in 1869.

Any serious philatelist can easily pursue America's fancy cancels for they exist in a virtually countless array of designs and in all price ranges. For instance, no one has ever tried to quantify the number of "star" cancels that exist on the stamps from 1847 until well into the late 1890's. "Stars" are among the simplest of fancy cancels—complemented by other equally common designs, like donuts, crosses and geometric designs. There is even the U.S. Cancellation Club which offers membership to any collector who enjoys gathering these unusual designs both on and off cover.

In the 1870's, clerks in the New York City Foreign Mail section produced some of the most beautiful—and very desirable—geometric designs which are practically unique to covers that went through the NYFM section of the city's General Post Office. Entire books have been written on just this specific category of the 19th century cancel.

Have all the known unusual fancy cancels been discovered and recorded? Far from it! Recently, while mounting the huge John R. Boker, Jr. collection of 1850's-1880's fancy cancels, Randy Neil noted that nearly half of Mr. Boker's cancels did not appear in any of the known philatelic literature on the subject. What this means, of course, is that there are good quantities of U.S. fancy cancels yet to be discovered—so the field is still wide open for anyone to pursue.

We are proud to offer fancy cancels as one of our four main categories of stock. If you would like to begin such a collection, there is no better place to start than the pages of this newsletter. Let us help you get started. What else would you like to see?

Return to our Newsletter Table of Contents...