Cancel Shorthand

General Format

According to the 1898 tax legislation, "in any and all cases where an adhesive stamp shall be used for denoting any tax imposed by this Act, except as hereinafter provided, the person using or affixing the same shall write or stamp thereupon the initials of his name and the date upon which the same shall be attached or used.." Most cancels follow this simple prescription, but many used their full names or a product name. Sometimes locations are also included.

The following general format was used in the BDR project to describe the precancels:

border or other formatting information, first line of the precancel/second line of the precancel/third line of the precancel/.../final line of the precancel, ink color and other miscellaneous information

The most common type of cancel is just initials and a date. These cancels are written out very simply using / for the start of a new line. The first line is usually the name and the date information is contained in an additional line or lines. Most cancels do not have borders, so there is no preceding border information. Cancels might use typefaces (e.g., fonts) with serif (e.g., Times Roman), san-serif (e.g., Hevetica, Arial, or Universe), or fancier styles such as "calligraphic" variation of the widths in the lettering such as achieved with broad nib pens.

The different features of this shorthand are described in the following sections. Many examples are included to illustrate the application of this shorthand. Many of the scans have had the cancel color differentiated from the original stamp color to enhance contrast and then rendered in black and white for better viewing.

Border Shorthand

 (  Circle, typically the outer border of a circular date stamp; any precancel text immediately inside the outer border follows the circle symbol; a double space in this text (often between a name and a city or state) indicates a break in this text in which the remaining text starts in the opposite side of the circle in the opposite direction
 ((  A pair of circles with the outer circle sometimes being bolder
 o(  An oval variation of the circular border (
 gear(  A circular border with teeth
  bx   Rectangular border with following lines describing the precancel within the "box"
  wvy   Wavy as applied to a line or the edges of a rectangular border
  hex   A six-sided border, typically with a long side and square corners along the top
  [x]bx   A fancy box border consisting of light-field X’s, often in pairs of X's

Cancel Format Shorthand

  :   Descriptors preceding this colon apply to all following lines of the cancel until described to the contrary
  /   Separates lines; indicates the start of a new line

  dbl:   A combination of two hand cancels; each is individually described in full with the descriptions separated by a semicolon; typically, the ink color is the same for both cancels
  [a]   Convex arching text
  [ra]   Concave arching text (or a "reversed arch")
  [bar]   A solid bar
  [ln]   A line, usually horizontal unless otherwise indicated
  [sym]   A symbol

The following features run up and down such as text or lines; this is different from "vert" used in the end of a cancel description which refers to the entire orientation of the precancel relative to the long dimension of the stamp


In the approximate middle of the stamp

  [rhs]   Right hand side
  [lhs]   Left hand side
  [dot]   A dot, typically mid letter height distinguishing it from a common period
  [/]   An actual slash mark used in the cancel, a feature usually observed only in manuscript date cancels
  [m xx]   Manuscript xx, where xx is typically a date or a year
  [span n]   Cancel which spans n stamps
  [emb]   Embellishment
  *   An asterisk, sometimes large, usually centered at the height of the characters

Typeface/Lettering Shorthand


Typeface having serifs (e.g., a "Courier" or "Times Roman" style typeface)

  [ss]   Typeface not having serifs (sans serif) (e.g., a "Helvetica" or "Arial" style typeface)

Calligraphic typefaces including broad pen lettering (varying line widths such as in Roman lettering) and more embellished or unusual typefaces characteristic of brush or broad pen lettering; because of the large range of possibilities here, a more detailed description of the calligraphic style was not undertaken

  [i]   Italic

Lettering of small size

  [lg]   Lettering of large size
  [r]   A change in the size of the lettering, typically following a large first letter, returning back to the "regular" size used for most of the line of the cancel
  [b]   Bold lettering
  [tall]   Lettering which is vertically elongated
  [narrow]   Narrow spacing between letters
  [wide]   Wide spacing between letters
  [lc]   Lower case
  [sup]   Superscript
  [und]   Underline

Date Shorthand

  mo   The month represented by the first three letters, usually all capitals and sans serif
  dd   The date of the month as digits
  yr   The year represented as four digits
  date   The date written as a single line in the form mo dd yr; this is one of the most common forms in which the date is used in cancels

A common combination in circular date stamps in which the month, the date and the year are on three separate lines in this order; the month is usually capital letters sans serif and only the first three letters are used; the date is one or two digits; and the year is four digits; this is a short form for the following representation: mo/dd/yr

  f:mdy   The mdy format contained within a box with wavy lines outside the box on two opposite sides
  dmy   A reordering variation of mdy
  mm   The month of the year represented as two digits
  yy   The last two digits of the year
  Mon   The month represented by the first three letters, the first capitalized and the second and third letters in lower case
  Month   The month fully spelled with only the first letter capitalized
  MONTH   The month fully spelled out in all capital letters

Ink Color Shorthand

  ,viol   Violet or purplish
  ,blk   Black
  ,red   Red
  ,blue   Blue
  ,grn   Green

Miscellaneous Notations

  ?   A "?" leading the cancellation description indicates that the correlation of this specific cancel with the company in the ERA Druggists Directory database is speculative; in some cases this extends to assignments made by Joyce when close inspection suggested errors in reading the cancels or confusion of poor strikes of well-known cancels with other cancels
  [?]   A bracketed "?" following lettering or other information indicates a poor strike which rendered the preceding character difficult to read
  ??   A pair of question marks indicate a major feature such as a probable word or group of words in which the strike is too poor or washed out to read any of the lettering
  ..   A pair of periods leading or ending a line of a cancel indicates that the lettering goes off the stamp; additional examples of these cancels are required to complete the knowledge of the specific lettering, especially with respect to arriving at in index for inclusion in the listings
  1.5x, 2x, etc..   This notation appended to a cancellation description indicates that the cancel is applied to a stamp multiple times (e.g., two times or "2x"); the spacing between the repetitions of the cancel is often conserved indicating that a large stamp having multiple coverage of each stamp was likely applied to a sheet or a rolled stamp was used.