Stamp Cancellation Marks: The Complete Guide

Postal cancellation marks and postmarks are technically two different things, although many view them as one and the same. Both work together to ensure stamps cannot be reused, and a package’s origination point and date are noted. As a collector, it’s useful to understand stamp cancellation marks.

Stamp cancellation marks have come in all shapes, sizes, designs, and colors since the initial hand cancellations in 1840. Their purpose was to stop people reusing stamps to save some money. Eventually, cancellations also included the date and location the package was mailed.

Cancellation marks have served a vital role throughout postal history. If they never existed, it is likely the postal system as we know it today would never have existed. Below, we discuss stamp cancellation marks in more detail.

What Is A Cancellation Mark On A Stamp?

A cancellation mark on a stamp is a postal mark applied by postal employees, originally by hand and now by a machine, over top of a stamp that indicates the stamp has been paid for and used. They were designed to stop people being able to reuse stamps to save money.

Cancellation marks were called a few different names:

  • Obliteration
  • Defacement
  • Killer
  • Cancel

Post Or Cancellation Mark?

Postage cancellations are often lumped in with “postal markings” or a “postmark.” Many people do not realize that they are entirely separate items. Every postal package eligible for delivery will have both a:

Postal Marking – Contains the time and date of mailing and the origin post office

Cancellation Mark/Obliteration – This is the part of the mark that defaces the stamp

The obliteration will always fall to the right of the postal marking. It will usually have wavey lines, although some have slanted lines and squiggly designs. Initially, the obliteration mark was applied by hand by employees and there was very little standardization.

The post mark, on the other hand, was applied by another employee in the post office. Part of the confusion arises because a postmark can substitute for a cancellation mark. When a postmark is applied too far to the right, on top of the stamp, it can serve as a cancellation mark. It does not work the other way around.

History Of Stamp Cancellations

In 1840 in England, a new way of charging for package and letter delivery was devised. Rather than a package recipient paying by the sheet plus a mileage charge to be given the package, a prepaid stamp that covered delivery was introduced.

A stamp represented a certain weight, and it covered the equivalent weight in a package. If the weight of a package exceeded the assigned value another stamp was due until the number of purchased stamps equaled the weight of the package.

Included in the cost of the stamp was delivery of the package. Some destinations had special prices, in addition to the base cost, but all other deliveries were covered by the regular postage rate based on stamps.

Improving The Postal System

The new system improved the postal system in at least three ways:

  • It made postage affordable for the commoner, as prior to the stamp, sending a package any distance could cost the average worker an entire day’s wages
  • The stamp got rid of the practice of recipients having to cover the cost of postage, which was onerous for the recipient as well as the deliverer of the package
  • The cost of postage was standardized and based on weight, which made it easier to estimate how much sending a package would cost

For the postal service, the stamp reinvented its image. Instead of being a delivery service mainly for the well off and politically connected (there were all sorts of exemptions from postage costs, including some that were bought and sold), everyone could now send and receive packages without paying an arm and a leg.

The new system paid for itself by expanding its customer base.

There was one problem. People tried to reuse stamps to avoid paying for new postage. Postal leadership recognized the problem with this and issued hand stamps that would be applied to the stamps when they were processed for delivery. 

The Penny Black

The first cancellation mark was a “Maltese Cross,” and it was applied across the stamp in red ink. England’s first postage stamp was the Penny Black, which featured a white profile of Queen Victoria on a black background.

The Penny Black had a very short run, largely because of three reasons related to the cancellation mark:

  • People realized that the black background on the stamp obscured cancellation marks in red ink
  • The red ink used to apply the cross cancellation mark could be cleaned off the stamp
  • With a little more defacement, the cancellation could be completely hidden, and the stamp could be reused

That prompted the English postal service to change the Penny Black to the Penny Red, where the cancellation mark was much more difficult to hide. The ink was also changed from red to black and permanent ink was used.

Cancellations, however, were applied by hand, had no standardization regarding how they were applied, and could often vary depending on who applied the cancellation mark.

A New British Cancellation Mark

In 1844, the British postal service abandoned the Maltese Cross and started to use cancellations that displayed the number of the location of the post office a parcel was mailed from. This was applied to overseas postage as well.

The postal service did allow postmasters to come up with their own additions to the cancellation marks. This includes images and squiggly lines and opened the door for postal employees to show a little creativity. These cancellation marks were called “Fancy Cancels.”

Fancy Cancels

Postmasters were always looking for a way to leave their own imprint on their respective post offices. To help them stand out beyond the standard serial number in the cancellation mark, many adopted a cancellation mark pattern that was unique to each post office. Cancellation marks included stars, squiggly lines, triangles, and circles.

The patterns on the cancellation mark were often carved by postal employees and used with the standard hand stamp. Many were very intricate and became a source of pride for each post office.

When hand stamps were converted to automated machinery, many of the hand stamps were converted into a die that was used to mechanically put the cancellation mark on postal packages.

Innovation In The United States

Many United States post offices used the Maltese Cross cancellation mark long after the British moved to their post office ID number. Shortly after the introduction of stamps, various patents for cancelling devices and machines were issued. These were designed to make it more difficult to wash the cancellation mark off the stamp and make it harder to reuse stamps.


Perfins were holes punched across stamps in the initials of the stamp owner. Businesses used them a lot. During the early days of stamps, unused stamps could be redeemed for cash. Only the owner of the stamp, as proven by the Perfin initials, could redeem that stamp. This method was adopted to discourage theft of stamps.

The first automated, highspeed cancellation machines were used in 1880 in Boston. The rest of the country quickly adopted this technology. Hand cancellations are still often used when sending special or formal mail. Hand cancellations run less of a risk of damaging the mail than machines.

20 Types Of Stamp Cancellations

1. Cancelled-To-Order

Cancelled-to-order stamps were cancelled with a cancellation mark, but never used. For many countries, primarily in Eastern Europe, these stamps were sold primarily for revenue.

2. First Day of Issue

These are special stamps, usually affixed to a cover with a cancellation mark, that includes the words “First Day of Issue.”

3. Deferential Cancellation

These were designed to preserve as much of the stamp as possible.

4. Duplex Cancel

With these, the postmark and the cancellation take up the same general space.

5. Fancy Cancels

Shortly after the stamp was invented, postmasters began to want to put their own mark on letters originating from their post offices. While most postmasters wanted to have a memorable cancellation stamp, postmasters in the United States and Canada went the extra mile.

Many of them began to incorporate symbols on their stamps that had some connection with post office or local community. Stamps made of cork or wood began sporting designs including:

  • Stars
  • Circles
  • Flags
  • Animals
  • Geometric shapes

These were popular among philatelists and stamp collectors. Many collectors sought out envelopes with fancy cancels. One famous cancellation mark was the “kicking mule.”

6. Flag Cancellations

With flag cancellations, the design of the US flag is the cancel mark.

7. Hand Stamped Cancellations

These are, as the name suggests, cancellations made by hand.

8. Highway Post Office Cancels

Highway post office cancels were cancels that were completed by postal employees in mail vehicles. The cancels were completed in transit using portable mail handling equipment. This was done during peak periods, during inclement weather, and when a high volume of mail was expected.

9. Pictorial Cancellations

The USPS has a special class of cancellations that have an image as part of the cancellation mark. These are called pictorial cancellations. Pictorial cancellations should not be confused with “special” cancellations that publicize an event (see below).

For truly unique occasions, the USPS sanctioned cancellations that celebrated an event and had an image tied to the celebration. The USPS Building Bridges Special Postal Cancellation Series is one example.

10. Special Cancellations

USPS special cancellations are usually applied at special “post offices,” on site of the celebrated event. The post office in this case remains in existence for one day. These events often have a special die that contains a slogan and/or a picture commemorating the event.

The subjects of special cancellations events are very broad and can include commercial enterprises, athletic events, arts and cultural celebrations, and scientific achievements.

11. Machine Cancellations

Machine cancellations are – you guessed it – cancellations handled by machines.

12. Mute Cancels

These are cancels that had no writing (often a letter with a mute cancel had the stamp defaced). It was called a mute cancel because “it does not speak.”

13. Bullseye Cancels

These are circular and centered on the stamp. Inside the circle is the date, time, and location the stamp was used.

14. Numeral Cancels

In Britain and Ireland in 1844, numeral cancels identified the post office at which the postage was cancelled. The shape of the bars indicated the country of use and often the numeral cancel included a date stamp in duplex cancellations.

15. Pen Cancels

A pen cancel was when a pen was used to deface the stamp.

16. Precancels

Precancels have printed cancellations on them. They are usually used in mass mailers.

17. Ship Cancels

Ship cancels were issued on ships.

18. Railway Post Office (RPO) Cancels

RPO cancels were applied from the mail car on trains. The first cancellation of postage on a train happened in 1838, two years before the introduction of the Penny Black. The last RPO in the USA closed in 1977.

19. Slogan Cancellations

Slogan cancellations included a slogan or message. They were usually commemorative or a form of advertising.

20. Automated Cancellations With Messaging

In Canada, it is routine to use automation with messaging and pictures to celebrate various holidays, events and momentous dates. These cancellations are also used to promote worthy commercial interests (such as promoting the Canada Post).

This practice is occasionally done in the USA with preprinted, precancelled envelopes, and in Britain in the Canadian form.

How To Identify Stamp Cancellation Marks

Every mailed letter has a cancellation mark located on the stamp or very near it. The cancellation will deface the stamp, although most are not significant defacements. The cancellation mark can be anything that marks the envelope to recognize that the stamp has been used.

Sometimes cancellation marks get misapplied. This can happen if a machine needs to be calibrated. Interestingly, if you find a stamp that has been mailed but the cancellation mark is obscured or not present, it is still considered cancelled. Thus, using the stamp again would constitute violating the law as it pertains to postage and cancellations.


In addition to the cancellation mark, a postmark is included on every stamp. These are usually two separate things, but not always. When both are applied together, the mark will be on the stamp in some form with the postmark about a half inch to the left of the end of the cancellation.

It is usually clearly identifiable with ink with either lettering or a pattern that indicates that the stamp is cancelled.

Does The Post Office Still Cancel Stamps?

The Post Office does still cancel stamps, both by machine and by hand in special circumstances. If letters and packages can be mailed, the Post Office will cancel stamps once they are used.

Are Cancelled Stamps Valuable?

The value of a cancellation mark depends on the cancellation mark itself, the post office involved, and the stamp involved. Most are not valuable in and of themselves. In fact, many collectors want stamps with no or very faint cancellation marks, unless the item in question is a specific cover.

The heavier the cancellation mark the less valuable the stamp and the cancellation mark are. That does not mean, though, that lighter cancellation marks will bring in much more than darker cancellation marks. The important factor is that the cancellation mark does not obscure any part of the stamp.

A dark cancellation mark that only marks the border of a stamp is preferred to a light cancellation mark that defaces the image on a stamp.

When a collector is intentionally cancelling a stamp to collect it and its cover, they may mark the envelope of the mailing with the words “Philatelic Mail,” which is a message to postal employees to please cancel lightly.

Cancellations And Stamp Value

More than most influences on stamps, the situation the stamp was cancelled in plays a major role in its value. A rare stamp is generally preferred in an unused state. A stamp from a famous period (for example, the German inflation stamps) can increase the value of a stamp by a lot.

Some collectors want cancellations if both the stamp and cancellation mark are part of a cover. Others only want specific cancellation marks, such as collecting only fancy cancellations. Collectors that want cancellations will usually want them to be bold and readable.

One thing all collectors agree is that hand cancelled stamps are not worth much. This is because it is almost impossible to authenticate one. Even early stamps that have hand cancels are not worth much unless the stamp is incredibly rare.

Fraud And Forgeries

As with anything in the collectible market, where there is money to be made, there are forgeries and counterfeits. Most forgeries happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of the packet trade. Forgeries have also been known to appear if a stamp is particularly valuable if it has been used.

Basically, the rule of thumb is to have any cancellation you think might be worth money checked out by an expert. Do not pay anything for a cancellation without first verifying it is authentic.

Final Thoughts

Cancellation marks help postal services cut down on theft and the reuse of stamps. Without them, it would have been extremely costly for postal services as anyone could buy one stamp and use it until it fell apart. Most cancellations, however, do not add value to stamps.

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