Postmarks Historical Overview

“For the majority of us this informative and well researched historical overview is going leave you better informed than most on the subject of postmarks”


The first postmark (called the “Bishop Mark”) was introduced by English Postmaster General Henry Bishop in 1661 and showed only the day and month of mailing in order to prevent the delay of the mail by carriers. In the 19th century and early 1900s it was common for letters to receive multiple postmarks indicating the time, date, and location of each post office delivering or transporting the letter, and this is still occasionally true, though to a lesser extent (see “backstamp”). While almost every contemporary postmark includes a location as well as a date, in 2004 New Zealand Post announced plans to eliminate the location on their postmarks and include only the date; however, information about this can be determined by a three-number code on the postmarks.

Pony Express Postmark

Pony Express Postmark Circa 1860

Different types of postmarks include railway post offices (“RPOs”) and maritime (on-board ship) postmarks. Postmarks on naval vessels during sensitive operations in wartime are sometimes “clean,” showing less information than normally to prevent route of travel or other details from falling into enemy hands. Similar to this is the “censored postmark,” overprinted with a black obliteration of the time and place of mailing for similar reasons.

Hawaii post once had a surfboard mail postmark, for covers that traveled by surfboard.

A color postmark is on the United States Postal Service-issued collectible envelope commemorating the 2004 inauguration of George W. Bush.

While postmarks are applied almost universally by or under the authority of the official postal department, service, or authority [in the United States it is possible to receive a permit to apply your own postmark, called a Mailer’s Permit Postmark], and under certain conditions specified by the private express statutes in the United States, a privately carried letter may be cancelled with a private postmark.

Unofficial entities that issue artistamps may use postmark-like markings as well.

Air Mail Saves Time: US Postmark

US Air Mail Postmark

Much of the published work on postmarks covers postmarks from before 1900. (This is perhaps because in the United States so-called fancy cancels were prevalent in this period, with the cancelling device often hand-cut from cork by the postmaster in elaborate shapes such as flags, stars or shapes that were seasonally-appropriate such as turkeys for Thanksgiving). Much work in studying postmarks is needed for 1900 and later.

In Great Britain the first postmark employed for the cancellation of the then new postage stamps was the Maltese Cross, so named because of its shape and appearance. This was used in conjunction with a date stamp which was applied, usually to the rear of the letter, which denoted the date of posting.

Fewer postmarks are used now than previously, with the advent of meter labels, which indicate the precise date and time of acceptance at the post office, some types of computer vended postage, and computerized postage people can print off their own PCs (called in the United States PC Postage, these services were offered by such companies as and Neopost, Inc.). These indicia do not need to be postmarked, though occasionally they are redundantly, and inadvertently (or for whatever other reason).

Ink Color

When the first universal postal system was started in the United Kingdom with its Penny Black, the postmark used red ink for contrast. This was not successful, and the stamp was changed to non-black colors so that the postmark could use black ink.

The majority of postmarks today are in black, with red (particularly in the United States with local post offices’ handstamps) following, though sometimes they are in other colors. This is particularly true in the case of pictorial postmarks if the color in question has some connection to the commemoration.


There have apparently been some postmarks with a “3D” effect.

Digital Postmarks

In 2004 the United States Postal Service announced plans to introduce first day digital color postmarks to be used to cancel some first day covers for commemorative stamps in 2005 and this practice has continued into 2006 and 2007.

Postmark Advertisement

Singapore Post offers a “postmark advertising” service which, strictly speaking, applies to the “killer” rather than the postmark. Hungarian Post Co., Ltd. offers a similar service.


A special or rare postmark can substantially add to the value of a stamp. (In addition to everyday postmarks there are postmarks indicating the first day of issue of a particular stamp and pictorial cancellations commemorating local events, anniversaries, and the like and slogan postmarks which advertise an event or pass information to the public. [There has been a recent change to the term “pictorial postmarks” rather than “pictorial cancellations” by the USPS.])

Postmark Africa

Postmark Africa is a program on the BBC World Service.


A timestamp is a type of postmark.

The Postmark Award is given to outstanding employees of Canada Post.

Similar Marks

A postmark should not be confused with the killer; which are lines, bars, etc. used to cancel a postage stamp. Neither should a postmark be confused with overprints generally, or pre-cancels (stamps that have been cancelled before the envelope or package to which they are affixed is submitted or deposited for acceptance into the mailstream, they most commonly have taken the form of a pre-printed city name on the stamp) specifically, which generally do not indicate a date.

Flight cachets, more or less elaborate rubber-stamps on an envelope indicating on which flight (typically a first flight) a cover has traveled via air mail, are in addition to the postmark and are not postmarks either.

Source: “Collecting those strange Tongan stamps on cover,” in Scott Stamp Monthly (August 2002)


There are many clubs devoted to the hobby of collecting postmarks. One of those clubs is the Post Mark Collector’s Club, founded in 1946 and based in the USA. Another is the British Postmark Society, founded in 1958.

See also

Postal marking


^ a b “Hawaii Post – Postmarks”. Hawaii Post. 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-22.

^ “Worlds only underwater Post Office”. Hideaway Island. 2003-05-26. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ “Fishman: Proofs of Service”. 1993-04-09. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ “Medicine (M.D. Program)”. Wayne State University. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 

^ “How to be an Expert/Covers”. AskPhil – Collectors Club of Chicago. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 

^ “History of the Postal Service”. BBC. 2003-07-24. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ “Postmarks (Date Stamp) Service”. New Zealand Post. 2006-06-28. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ Klug, Janet (2004-01-19). “Myriad possibilities to postmark collecting”. Linn’s Stamp News. Retrieved 2009-02-22.  see this sanitised postmark on a cover

^ Privately-carried and -canceled postcards from Chickensville Location, Michigan, which does not have its own post office, are an example.

^ Snee, Charles (August 9, 2004), 3-D postmark update: use on postal card in 1993, Linn’s Stamp News, pp. 35, ISSN 0161-6234, 

^ “Revolutionary First Day Digital Color Postmark Creates Unique Collectable”. USPS. 2004-11-15. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ “Postmark Advertising”. Singapore Post. 2005. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

^ “Postmark ad”. Magyar Posta. 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Postmarks

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World postmark primer: how to decipher dates

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London 2012 – New postmark kicks off 2012 day in London (backing London’s bid to host 2012 Olympics)

Specialty Holiday Postmarks Offered by the United States Postal Service


Post Mark Museum and Research Library


The ABCs of Precancel collecting


Post Mark Collectors Club

Bullseye Cancel Collectors Club

British Postmark Society

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