Scarce pen-cancel on the first French Cérès 20c postage stamp…
On the first imperforate French stamp issued on January 1st 1849, a ‘grill’ was deemed to be the proper cancellation of the stamp, accompanied by a circular cancel on the envelope indicating the town, day, month, year and department number. However, the grill cancels were not available at many of the 3,633 bureaux de poste (including 37 in Algeria) until January 13-15th. So for the first two weeks of January 1849, and occasionally later, the previously used (prior to postage stamps being issued in France) circular date stamp was the only available cancellation tool.
The French Cérès 20c black stamp was actually allowed, or instructed, to be “pen cancelled” - with two opposing strokes from a pen to form a cross - by a notice issued on January 3rd which was the third day of usage, because many post offices hadn’t received their date-stamp and lozange grill cancellers in time for the launch. This is a lengthy specialist subject for philatelists because initially several countries issued black stamps but quickly discovered that the black ink cancellation could be cleaned off and the stamp reused, thus defrauding post offices of revenue. In the case of French cancels it’s possible to identify certain towns from repetitively recognisable pen stroke styles.
In my recently purchased example above the grill cancel and circular date stamp of Granville is very feint and I imagine a scenario where the postal worker at the receiving office re-cancelled the stamp with several pen strokes to avoid potential fraudulent reuse.
Modern pen cancellations are an occasional topic in stamp circles and on the Postage Stamp Chat Board & Stamp Forum there’s a discussion from 2015 about “Why don’t many collectors like pen cancels on early stamps?” One member writes that, “The (Australian Post) regulations clearly state that ALL uncancelled mail received MUST be cancelled USING A BLUE BIRO. I believe it used to read "blue pencil" and postmen carried an indelible blue pencil in their pocket which they would have to lick before striking out the stamp.”
Personally I don’t like current pen cancels for the simple reason of not being a modern stamp collector allows me to pass foreign stamps on to friend’s children so as to hopefully start their interest in the hobby. Above shows the spoiling, by my local postie, with biro across seven attractive French pictorial stamps which could have been of great interest and hopefully education to a youngster. Several dealers I purchase from throughout Europe generally use colourful stamps on their mailings so it’s a great pity that some postal workers don’t appreciate the reasons why.
Further to this I found in the Physics Forums - which made me smile because of course it is illegal - “I am a US postage stamp collector. Occasionally a letter will miss the post office's canceling machine and the postage stamp is then "hand canceled" by another person in the sorting/delivery chain by using a ballpoint pen. I would like to find a means of removing the ballpoint mark from the stamp without damaging the appearance of the stamp itself. I've tried acetone, bleach, nail polish remover, lighter fluid - all remove the actual face printing of the stamp.”
And on YouTube, Graham Beck writing for the American Philatelic Society shares his thoughts in a very informative 15 minute video.
Interestingly, in 1923 at the height of hyper-inflation in Germany, postal rates increased almost every week, often doubling or trebling at a time. This resulted in dozens of stamps being affixed to mail which became increasingly difficult to cancel with an inked date stamp… and sometimes stamps on the back of the envelope were missed. The above is an example of this mishap and leaves 175,000,000 (that’s one hundred and seventy five million) marks worth of stamps uncancelled!