Thanks to modern technology, you don't see precancelled stamps used much these days. But between the late 1800s and up to the 1980s, precancelled stamps saw a lot of use. What I'm going to give you here is a very broad overview of precancels. I could go on for pages about all of the different types of precancels and ways to collect them. If you want to know more, I invite you to check out the Precancel Stamp Society. You can contact the Secretary at: James Hirstein, P.O. Box 4072, Missoula, MT 59806-4072. Or check online for more information at: www.precancels.com.
Precancels were an effort by the USPOD to save labor. Before the use of modern automated machines, cancelling and sorting mail was a very labor intensive process. A clerk would have to face the letter, feed it through the cancelling machine, and then sort it to its correct destination. This took a lot of time. To reduce time and costs, precancels were used. This was very beneficial when large companies made massive mailings of hundreds or thousands of letters at one time.
The concept is simple. A whole sheet of mint stamps could be cancelled at one time. The precancels were given to the mailer. The mailer applied them to the letters and took them to the post office. Because the stamps were already cancelled and facing the same way – all that needed to be done was to sort the letters. This eliminated two steps: facing and cancelling the mail. Precancels offered a huge labor savings to the USPOD.
Precancel stamps weren't produced by the USPOD until 1916. Before that, some industrious postmasters in larger cities (Boston, New York, etc.) were already using their own precancels. This is the classic period of precancels.
There are 2 basic types of precancels: Bureaus and locals.
Bureaus are those precancels that were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Orders had to be for 500,000 or more stamps at one time. There are about 24 different styles of Bureau precancels. A style is the appearance of the precancel: the size of the letters for the city and state name, the spacing between the 2 parallel lines, and so forth. Bureau precancels were only printed on definitive stamps. If you collect each Scott number that has a Bureau precancel and collect one copy for each city and each style of Bureau precancel used on that Scott number, that collection would consist of about 9500 different precancels.
The styles and Scott numbers of Bureau precancels used for different cities varies greatly. For example, a small city like Fargo, ND may have only used one or two styles of Bureau precancels on one or two Scott numbers. A large city like New York, NY may have used many different styles of precancels on a few hundred different Scott numbers. And in the case of New York, NY, the same Scott number may be precancelled with 2 different styles of precancels. The mailer may have asked for, say, the 2˘ Liberty stamp to be precancelled which appears in one style. If they later ordered more 2˘ Liberty stamps, the BEP may have changed the style of precancel so that a second style of Bureau precancel appears on the same 2˘ Liberty stamp.
Bureau precancels are made from large rubber printing plates, similar to the Kans-Nebr issue and other overprinted stamps from the US. Precancels printed by the BEP precancelled a whole pane of stamps at one time. Bureau precancels have a sharp and even appearance.
In the 1970s, the USPS decided that it didn't need to use the city and state name on Bureau precancels. So they started issuing stamps with only 2 parallel lines. These are called “lines only” precancels. The idea was that the BEP could mass-produce these precancels and then send them to anyone who needed them, regardless of city or state.
A collection of Bureau precancels is easy to form. About 95% of the Bureau precancels are common and easy to obtain. The last 5% are scarce or rare. Only 96 of the 9500 known Bureau precancels have a catalog value of $20 or more.
Locals are just as the name implies. These precancels are prepared by the local post office. Even if you had customers mailing dozens or hundreds of letters, it was still worth the effort to precancel those stamps. Precancel devices (as they are called) were issued to local post offices. These devices were usually a wooden block with a small handle. The precancel was a small rubber, steel, or vinyl plate attached to the wooden block. Local precancels usually only precancelled 10 or 25 stamps at a time. There are about 275 different styles of precancel devices that were issued by the USPOD. Styles changed greatly over time. To obtain a collection of each style of precancel used for each town and state in the US would take about 42,000 stamps. If you collected each style and town used on each Scott number stamp (called "general precancel collecting"), that would probably take a few million stamps. Not every local post office has used precancels though.
Local precancels tend to be not as sharp in appearance as Bureaus. Since local precancels are made by hand, they can be applied upside-down, diagonally, or other positions. The inking may be uneven. The postmaster would take out a sheet of stamps (or block of stamps depending on how many stamps you needed). They would use an ink pad to ink the precancel device and then precancel the stamps. If a stamp collector stopped in the post office seeking precancels, many times the postmaster would let the collector make their own precancels using the precancel device.
During the 1980s, the need for precancels really dwindled. The USPS transitioned to highly automated machines to cancel and sort the mail. Saving labor wasn't an issue any more. The USPS stopped issuing Bureau precancels, even the lines-only varieties.
However, the USPS still inscribed some stamps with a "precancel" as they called it. This is where the precancel was actually part of the stamp design. Wording like "Bulk Rate" or "First Class Presorted". For example, Scott #2254 only comes with a red precancel. It's a standard part of the stamp design. Some precancel collectors shun these issues. They have decided to call them service-inscribed stamps instead. There are differing opinions on whether these newer issues are true precancels or not.
Local precancels are disappearing quickly. The need for local precancels is almost zero. These days, local precancels used on mail are almost always for philatelic mailings. Back in the hey-day of precancels, it was common for a dozen or more post offices per month to order a new precancel device. In the last few years, there are perhaps a dozen or so precancel devices issued per year. Almost all of them are philatelically inspired. Recently, the USPS issued an order calling for the discontinuance of issuing locally precancelled stamps. The order also asked postmasters to destroy and dispose of all local precancel devices on hand.
You may be wondering, how did the post office prevent re-use of precancels? It wasn't until 1938 that the USPOD really took notice of the possibility of re-use of precancels.
A precancel has the city and state name on it. Hence, it isn't possible, for example, for someone in Los Angeles, CA to use precancels from New York, NY on their mail. It's illegal to mail from one post office using precancels from another post office. Because precancels are generally used by larger companies making large mailings, it really isn't worth the effort for someone to save the precancel, then mail it back to the company so that they could apply some glue and use it on an envelope again. Remember, the stamps are precancelled. So they don't have a regular postmark applied. Looking at an envelope, you can't tell if that is a new precancel on there or if someone applied glue to a previously used precancel and attached it to the letter.
As the recipient of mail with precancelled stamps, I probably only get a few letters per year from companies with precancels. So it really isn't worth my time and effort to soak these few stamps off of the letter. And then I have to save them. Once I get several copies, I have to spend 3˘ to mail them back to the company so that they could reuse them again. And the company is going to have to pay someone to apply glue to a bunch of cheap stamps which requires more labor than it takes to just lick and stick new stamps. So all around, the reuse of precancels isn't very practical.
Gradually, precancels were used on more than just first class and advertising mail. Precancels were used on packages which meant that higher denominations of stamps were being precancelled and used. Now it was becoming more cost effective. If you received a package in the mail with 50˘ or more of precancels on it, that it might be worth your while to spend 3˘ for a letter and mail those stamps back to the company so that they could be used again. And with a little glue, it became economical to reuse these higher denomination stamps.
So on June 24, 1938, the USPOD issued an order requiring the mailers initials and the month and year of use to be printed on all precancel stamps with a denomination of 6˘ or more. By putting the company initials along with the month and year of mailing, the USPOD made it much harder to reuse higher denomination precancels again. Any reuse had to be done very quickly, within the same month. That's why some of the higher value Prexy and Liberty issues in particular exist with a precancel including the company initials and date on the stamp as well.
I'm sure that in the 100 or so years that precancels have been used, there were some isolated cases of re-use. But overall, the re-use of precancels has not been very lucrative due to the time and effort involved in trying to re-use the stamps.
That's the 5-minute tour of what precancels are about. I only covered the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to learn. There are many different ways to collect precancels. I gave you the contact information for the Precancel Stamp Society (PSS) earlier. If you're interested in precancels, I invite you to join the PSS and start learning more.