Thursday, July 4, 2024

What are Printed Precancels on 1898 Documentary Revenue Stamps? A Primer Part One

1898 Documentary Printed Precancels:  An Introduction

An example of a Chicago & Northwestern Railway 1899 dated printed precancel on the Scott #R163 rouletted one cent battleship revenue stamp.  The stamp also displays a handstamp cancel that was applied by a station freight agent after the stamp had been placed on a bill of lading:

C. & N.-W. Ry.


Collectors may occasionally come across battleship revenue stamps with printed overprints that look something like the stamp above.  The black lettering on the stamp is an overprinted precancel applied by the company that used the stamp, and in the case of the stamp above, the Chicago & Northwestern Railway placed its initials along with a year date and dashed line on which a freight agent was expected to place a handwritten or handstamped day date.  I've used the stamp above with the C&NWRy overprint as an example as overprints by this railroad are some of the most common to be found in collections and dealer stock.  

Who produced and used printed cancels?  Unlike the dozens if not hundreds of pharmaceutical companies during the 1898 tax period that used printed cancels on the proprietary series of stamps, there was a much more limited group of companies printing cancels on the documentary stamps, the majority of which were railroads.  A handfull of railroads, about 20 or so, used printed precancels on the one cent documentary battleship, and also several applied their printed cancels to the two cent battleship.  A smaller group of other companies, including express companies and an insurance company, used printed cancels on higher value stamps, even applying their cancels to R173-R175, the first three dollar value 1898 revenue stamps.

How were they used?  The Chicago & Northwestern system produced printed cancels only on the one cent documentary battleship.  These stamps were likely used exclusively on bills of lading (though they could have been used on parlour car tickets), which were effectively the shipping receipts that documented cargo received for transport by the railroad.  Bills of lading and their copies each required a one cent tax stamp.  And with railroads as the primary means of moving freight at the time, hundreds of millions of the one cent battleship were likely used by railroads on bills of lading.  Precancelled two cent battleships were used by a few railroads on checks or drafts to pay the two cent check tax.  Other uses will be discussed in future posts.

How were they printed?  The printed cancels appearing in this post, as with all the railroad printed cancels, were made with a typeset printing press.  Sheets of one cent stamps were fed into presses in which the printing plates were made up of moveable type.  Occasionally the type on the plate would differ from position to position, causing plate varieties.  Typesetting, plate, and printing varieties will be discussed in greater detail in a future post.

Why were they printed?  In the map below you can see that the Chicago & Northwestern System stretched west and north from Chicago into rural farm country.  Depots and stations dotted multiple states, and each station was required to stock revenue stamps to use on bills of lading when freight was consigned.  With every sheet valued at a dollar, railroads like the C&NW were sending out thousands of dollars of revenue stamps to stations scattered across multiple states.  Securing those stamps was a bit like securing currency.  Systems like the C&NW could help control theft by precancelling the stamps with their initials, making it more difficult to fence the stamps.  Presumably a purchaser of the precancelled stamps wouldn't want to show they were using the stamps of a railroad.

Did the Chicago & Northwestern only use printed cancels?  No, though the C&NW precancelled 100s of thousands stamps.  In fact, most railroads didn't pre-print their cancels.  Most cancelled their stamps with an inked rubber handstamp device, like the C&NW handstamp below.  
C. & N. W.

Above, an example of a Chicago & Northwestern Railway handstamp, what I like to call a decipede cancel due to the 5 wavy legs that project from each side of the box.  The cancel was one of several handstamp styles employed by the Northwestern system, the fanciest being the banner cancel that overstamped a printed cancel below.  This type of handstamp cancel may occasionally be found on  stamps precancelled by railroads in the C&NW System other than the C&NW railway itself.

C. & N. W. RY.
-handstamped over-
C. & N-W. Ry.


What is collectible among these cancels?  A basic 1898 documentary printed precancel collection might try to achieve one or more objectives, or collect as many examples of these relatively scarce items, including:
  • An example of each railroad or company that used printed precancels
  • An example of all major types cancels of each railroad or company
  • Examples of cancel printing varieties, including inverts, double impressions, and split cancels
  • Examples of on-document uses of printed cancels, including on bills of lading, checks and drafts
All together, the universe of these items is small, if also relatively scarce, and can make for a long-term search for the collector.   Demand for these items is also fairly light, so that prices, even for the rarest items, can be within the budget of many collectors.  Often the impediment to completing a collection of this material is supply rather than finances, so that patience and persistence is required!

Collecting on-document examples can be very interesting.  The stamp above with the fancy banner cancel comes from a fragment of a Chicago & Northwestern consignors bill of lading like that below in which beer from the Val Blatz Brewing Company was consigned for shipping.  Unfortunately, not all consignments on the C&NW were for beer!  

Lastly, for today's post, is an example of a C&NWRy unused plate strip of three.  A collector might try to collect multiples like these, though examples of unused multiples like these are not particularly common.  The railroads seemed to have been fairly careful to control the release of these stamps.  One exception is the International and Great Northrn Railroad, based in Texas, that seems to have quantities of multiples available to collectors, including at least one full sheet of the one cent documentary that I have seen.

1902 cancelled plate strip of three.  The 1902 C&NW Ry cancel is scarce.

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