The words “cancellation” and “postmark” are often used interchangeably, although strictly speaking this not completely accurate. This article will attempt to explain the actual difference between the two, while not establishing any hard and fast rules. After all, stamp collecting is supposed to be fun!
In its truest sense, a cancellation (also called a cancel, killer or obliteration) is a mark without writing that is applied directly to a stamp to prevent it from being reused—often wavy lines, circles, bars, etc. Some cancels, called “Fancy Cancels” were designed and hand carved by individual postal employees as a matter of artistic pride (see image). Now applied by machine, in the 19th and early 20th century a cancellation was manually applied by a postal worker using a pen or a handheld stamp.
A postmark is a marking applied to an envelope that indicates the time, date and place where the envelope was mailed from. This was usually applied by a postal worker with another handheld stamp. A postmark is usually applied on the envelope beside or below the stamp.
These two markings are often distinct from one another on the envelope. However, confusion can arise when a postmark overlaps onto part of the postage stamp, or is printed onto the stamp in its entirety (see image). In this case, the postmark has technically cancelled the stamp—but usually there are supposed to be two different markings.
So, in conclusion, the cancel goes on the stamp, whereas the postmark is stamped elsewhere onto the envelope itself. However, a postmark can cancel a stamp if applied directly to it. As clear as mud….right?!!!
Some people like to collect used stamps with different cancels. Rare cancels can sometimes be worth a lot of money, so check your stamps! What kinds of cancellations do you have?
Note: the study of markings on postal stamps and envelopes is called “marcophily”.