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A machine cancellation

On mail, a cancellation (or cancel for short) is a postal marking applied to a postage stamp or postal stationery indicating that the item has been used. Modern cancellations are often applied simultaneously with a postmark, for efficiency, and commonly the terms "cancellation" and "postmark" are used interchangeably, if incorrectly. (The confusion arises because of the practice of some postal administrations of applying the postmark directly on the stamp, at the cost of legibility.)

The term "killer" is sometimes used as a more vivid synonym for "cancel".


The introduction of postage stamps in 1840 and thereafter immediately engendered a need to clearly indicate that the stamp had done its service.

A pen cancellation

Many early cancellations were pen cancels, simply the use of a writing pen to deface the stamp, but before the days of ball-point pens, these took longer to apply than a handstamp, and most postal administrations required the use of cancellation devices, either supplied by the administration, handmade by the postmaster, or purchased from specialized suppliers. Handmade cancels were typically carved from cork and are known in a bewildering variety of creative designs, collectively known as fancy cancels. Pen cancels may still occasionally be seen (sometimes done with marker), typically when a postal clerk notices that a stamp has not been touched by the automated machinery (though there have sometimes been complaints by stamp collectors of redundant pen cancels by overzealous postal employees).

In the early period of the issuance of postage stamps in the United States a number of patents were issued for cancelling devices or machines that increased (or were purported to increase) the difficulty of washing off and reusing postage stamps. These methods generally involved the scraping or cutting-away of part of the stamp, or perhaps punching a hole through its middle. (These forms of cancellation must be distinguished from perfins, a series of small holes punched in stamps, typically by private companies as an anti-theft device.) See postage stamp reuse.

Types of cancels

Stamp collectors like to see stamps which are either lightly cancelled or which have bulls-eye cancellations. Another phrase for 'bulls-eye cancellations' is socked on the nose (SON).

A lightly cancelled stamp would have the postmark on a corner or small portion of the stamp. As lightly cancelled stamps are in general more valuable than heavily-cancelled (exceptions, discussed below, may be bulls-eye cancellations and special or rare postmarks), collectors have at times rubber-stamped (or handwritten) "philatelic mail" or the like on their covers to get the postal clerk or mail processor to cancel the stamps lightly. (It was perhaps from concern that a conventional cancellation device would damage some of Tonga's early foil stamps that a rolling cancellation device was employed.)

A bulls-eye cancellation is a readable postmark which entirely or almost entirely is on the postage stamp. They are favored by stamp collectors because one can see the time, date, and location where the stamp was used. The prevalence of bulls-eye cancellations varies considerably by country and time period.

Cancellations may either be applied by hand or machine In addition to everyday cancellations there are pictorial cancellations, which as the name suggests contain pictures or images associated with the commemoration of an event or anniversary. Some people attempt to use stamps relating to the theme of a pictorial cancellation on the envelope [1]. First day of issue of a stamp or piece of postal stationery is another type of cancellation.

In the United States, while cancellations are nearly universally applied by the authority of the United States Postal Service, it is legally possible to use one's own cancellations on a letter bearing United States postage stamps — if the letter is delivered by the sender, its employee (in the case of a company) or by a private delivery service following the requirements of the "Private Express Statutes". Private cancellations have actually been used in Germany. Private cancellations are to be distinguished from private overprints.

See also: philately

Cancellation is also a term used in networking

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