A couple days ago on January 8 I posted the image of a 1/8 cent proprietary stamp cancelled "BIG 4". Today I will go a bit more in depth regarding this peculiar cancel. It has often caused confusion with philatelists due to its non-standard origin. In a 1975 edition of the American Revenuer there was speculation about whether this cancel had been applied by a midwest railroad known as the Big 4. This cancel has never had anything to do with that railroad, despite any similarities, and I will illustrate a cancel of the railroad later in this post.
I have two types of BIG 4 cancels in my collection, the one immediately below in two lines and a one line version that is also illustrated. The cancel was created as an advertising stunt by the J.W. Stowell Printing Company, which produced four philatelic publications. To advertise those four, which included the magazines The Perforater, The Herald Exchange, The Philatelic Bulletin, and The New York Philatelist, Stowell created a promotional card that it sent to stamp dealers that purchased philatelic advertisements. The stamp was attached to the card, and the cancel and the card were printed at the same time.
From what I can figure, the J.W. Stowell Printing Company is no more, or at least not with that name and not in Federalsburg, Maryland, where it was based.
Two-line version of the BIG 4 cancel
Two-line version of the BIG 4 cancel
A copy of this stamp and cancel is currently for sale at Eric Jackson's Ebay store. The image below shows how Stowell used this type of cancel in a mock postal format. The image comes from the February 1976 American Revenuer.
The poor image quality of the image above comes from the American Revenuer as printed in the journal. I am very interested in securing the real Stowell items.
A single line example of the BIG 4 cancel above, and an image of an example of its use in the 1899 J.W. Stowell advertisment below. Note the BIG 4 publications are listed in the advert.
There was an old journal known as Midwest Precancel News that specialized primarily in postage stamp precancels but on occasion featured revenue stamps. Printed cancels on the battleships were in many ways precancels. The article below was part of a short survey of several of the major companies that used battleship printed cancels, including the Antikamnia Company and the Emerson Drug Company.
Midwest Precancel News, August 1936
Volume 3, Number 12, p. 47
Franklin Smith in this 1936 edition of the periodical Midwest Precancel News wrote about the Big 4 cancel. Smith notes at the end of this short piece that there are 3 versions of the BIG 4 cancel. I have only seen 2, and they are the examples from my collection illustrated above. Despite Mr. Smith's article, by 1975 there was speculation about the exact origin of this cancel in the American Revenuer. The AR put it straight though by February 1976 when it published a short article by Michael Gromet with an illustration of the advertising card by J. W. Stowell. According to that article the two line version of the cancel was found on a mock postal cancellation made by Stowell while the single line cancel was found on the card. Gromet illustrated the article with the images of use included above.
The distractor that has thrown some philatelists off regarding the origin of this cancel was the Big Four railroad - also known as the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway.
Hand illustrated cancel of the Big Four Railroad from the April 1974
edition of the American Revenuer, page 106
Henry Tolman and Steve Leavitt began a project in 1974 in the American Revenuer to illustrate railroad cancels on the 1898s. Serialized alphabetically, the cancels were illustrated and reprinted in the American Revenuer. Unfortunately the effort ended after two editions of the periodical and never got past the "Cs", but they did illustrate a Big Four Railroad cancel. I do not yet have a stamp with any type of Big Four cancel in my collection, so I've cribbed the Tolman/Leavitt illustration and pasted it above. Amusingly, in the key in the American Revenuer for this cancel, a typo indicated that this was a cancel for the "Big Sour" Railroad.