Fancy cancels include any stamps or covers marked with an interesting cancellation design to indicate used postage. While many collectors use the terms postmark and cancel synonymously, the earliest postmarks served only to denote the date a letter was accepted at an official post office; it wasn’t until the advent of adhesive stamps in 1840 that a separate system for indicating used stamps was required.
The most unique cancellation marks are the hand-stamps created before the advent of mail-processing machinery. Many local post offices designed and carved their own cancellation stamps, resulting in an array of diverse cancels to serve the basic purpose of defacing an official postage mark. Besides frequent variations on geometric forms like stars, crosses, and circles, some rare cancel marks featured initial letters or imagery like skulls or moons.
In 1840, Great Britain standardized its postmark system by adopting a generic “Maltese Cross” cancel design for all districts. However, the mark conveyed no additional information beyond the country of circulation, so the British Royal Mail soon incorporated numbers associated with specific postal routes, and finally date marks. The duplex cancel was first used in 1853 to print these two adjacent marks, one with location and date information and another to obliterate the postage.
As mail volume increased, faster methods for postmarking letters were needed. During the late 1850s, the British began testing prototypes of automatic cancellation machines. Many postmark styles were tried and rejected, but the circular duplex system quickly became the most popular and widely used.
Cancellations for special routes, like airmail or military correspondence, were adopted during the early 20th century, along with more decorative cancels for specific events or exhibitions. Around the same time, the traditional “Stars and Stripes” cancel mark was spreading across the United States, thanks to the proliferation of automatic postmarking machines. Though the stars were eventually scrapped, the original design’s row of wavy, parallel flag-lines is still featured in modern American cancellations.