The Boston Post Office, and the Development of Machine Cancellation (Exhibit Text Frame 1 of 7)

The Machine Cancel Society past president, William Barlow, Jr. , has produced an award-winning exhibit (2008 Indypex GOLD, Napex GOLD, Postmark Society award, and many more) on the history of machine cancels used in Boston, Massachusetts. Most collectors of machine cancels will recognize that Boston was a major center for experimentation with new machines, and study of American flag machines used in this city alone offers an amazing variety. The exhibit goes well beyond the American company and is a useful education for both new and experienced machine cancel collectors. This web page contains text of the exhibit pages created by William Barlow, Jr., and are reproduced and distributed to the public with his permission.

This web page, published by the Machine Cancel Society, contains the text of Frame 1 of the Barlow Boston Machine Cancel History Exhibit.

To see all of the exhibit frame images, go to Frame 1 all exhibit frame images.

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In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Boston—area inventors, aided significantly by the Boston Post Office, were in the forefront of the development and dissemination of machine cancellation. Several local companies, linked by convoluted interchanges of patents, innovating personnel and financial backers, produced cancelling machines which were the first to have broad acceptance by the larger post offices around the country. These machines ranged from the embryonic Leavitts to the highly popular flag cancels—including what is almost certainly the most famous American experimental machine cancel: the unique “Eagle and Thunderbolts.”

This exhibit aims to show the development and the ultimate decline of the machines first used in Boston during the nineteenth century. Examples of all major varieties produced by each company are included. Unusual cancellations are also shown where possible, including experimental machines, early and late impressions, cancellation errors, and alternative usages such as streetcar mail service and apparent short-term testing operations.

By the end of the nineteenth century the innovation period for Boston was over. During the next two decades the Boston Main Office held on to its locally-made machines longer than any other major post office in the country, but by 1920 the last of those machines had been abandoned.

* The Barnard and American-Barnard machines were hand powered and were not used in the Boston Main Office. The dates in the table are those of usages in nearby Fitchburg and in Boston Stations

Arrangement of the exhibit is generally in the chronological order of the introduction of the machines and/ or cancellation types. Certain items which are of infrequent appearance or particular interest are outlined in red. New discoveries of varieties or information are similarly emphasized.

Boston Main Post Office Souvenir Post Card Co. 268 Canal St, NYC ‘Green and white’ series Probably 1906

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Test and Early Usage , THOMAS LEAVITT

While there had been other mail marking devices invented and tested in the United States in the 1870's, the machines developed by Thomas Leavitt and others in his family became the first to achieve wide and sustained usage in America’s largest cities. Thomas Leavitt used the Boston Post Office as his testing ground, and nearly all of his machines were first placed in service there. The first operating machine was designed to handle envelopes but apparently required that each piece be hand fed. Such a machine could not yield significant savings in labor over hand cancellation. Only a single machine seems to have been made, saw sporadic use over five months, and could not have handled more than a small fraction of the daily mail in a post office the size of Boston.

Leavitt tested a prototype device on November 15, [1875], seven weeks before the first regular machine was placed in service. The cancel was composed of dashed lines and only one cork killer was used. Two copies known: one on a cover and this, on a postal card.

A new or altered machine was placed in service on January 6, 1876. The new cancel consisted of diagonal lines with two cork killers. First day of use.

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Thomas Leavitt , First Machine Usages

The two-cork design of the killer was specifically intended to cancel covers with two stamps. Below is one of three known covers bearing two stamps. Since this machine was hand fed, it could handle either covers or cards. But only a few cards are recorded and only during the first five weeks of the machine's use. The example on a postal card shown is probably the earliest, with a manuscript date of Jan 6, 1876 on the message side. The last cover is only the third to be found using the 2¢ local rate and the only one franked with the vermillion stamp, the other covers being 2¢ postal stationery.

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Thomas Leavitt Second Machine Test and Usages

A second type of machine, with a mechanical feed but able to cancel only postal cards, was used from early February 1876 to the middle of April 1878. Despite its limited application, the machine met a substantial need, since the availability of postal cards in sheets increased their commercial use. A test of the new machine was made on February 2, 1876.

The cancelling device on the new machine had not received its new killer at the time of the test. One of two recorded copies.

Leavitt cancels occasionally appear on U.S. postal cards with the first design, which had been replaced by the design above in 1875.

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Thomas Leavitt , Second Machine Usages

Two Boston machines appear to have been in use. Their cancellations are most easily distinguished by the distance between the S and the period in MASS.

March 4, 1876. Type I cancelling die.

January 7, 1878. Type II die. Second impression clearly shows all nine oblique cancelling bars.

The machines generally were used for bulk mail. European destinations are unusual. One of two recorded examples from this type of machine.

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Thomas Leavitt , Type A-3 Cancels

From December 1877 to April 1878 the same machines and postmark dies were occasionally fitted with a C in the circle, a service mark meaning “Mail collected from mail boxes by carriers.” Both Type I and Type II postmark dies were used with this service mark.

Type II die in use from December 24,1877 to early March 1878

Type I die recorded only from March 11 to April 3, 1878

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Thomas Leavitt Type B-1 Cancels

New cancellations with circular postmarks and a barred oval canceller became the most widely used of the Leavitt cancellations. Initially applied to existing machines in New York and Boston in early April 1878, this cancel was later used in 27 additional cities.

First type with seven bar canceller and small dial. April 1878 use with service letter C

With a service letter D. Time and date reversed

First type generally seen to July 31, 1879. Only a few examples are recorded after that date

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Thomas Leavitt Type B-1 Cancels

(Above and left) Lack of a key or pinning system left service letters at times askew or inverted

Type one cancels returned for six weeks in 1880.

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Thomas Leavitt Type B-2 Cancels

In 1879 a new eight—bar canceller was paired with a larger postmark dial (second dial type). In 1881 regulations allowed the omission of the year date (third dial type). Printed commercial messages on the reverse often allow the year date to be determined.

Second dial type, September 3, 1879

Transitional type with year—date slug inverted, February 24, 1881

Third dial type, February 23, 1882. Latest documented use

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Thomas Leavitt , Type C Cancellations

A new type of cancelling die consisting of twelve horizontal bars in six pairs was introduced in March 1882 in Boston. Three types of dials were used with these cancellers, each varying slightly in diameter. Washington, DC. and Baltimore received similar, although not identical, cancellers in the same year.

Dial type one, used March 1 to March 23, 1882

Dial type two, used March 30, 1882 to January 25, 1885

Dial type three, used November 4, 1885 to July 19, 1886. Earliest documented use

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Thomas Leavitt Types D and E Cancellations

Beginning in 1882 three new designs were introduced and used only in Boston. When the final machine was retired in 1890 only a few Leavitt machines were in operation elsewhere in the country.

18-bar canceller in its first period of use, February 25 to June 30, 1882. Also used intermittently in 1884

From January 27 to August 9, 1885, a 19—bar canceller was used

Final Leavitt canceller, in use 1886 to 1890. Known only with the D service mark

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Aside from the hand—fed mechanism first used in 1876, the Leavitt machines were designed to cancel postal cards. Leavitt, however, solicited financing for his efforts to produce a feeding mechanism which would handle envelopes. During 1881 and 1882 a number of such machines were tested, principally in Boston but also in New York, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The feeding method employed used needles or that created small holes in the surviving covers. Each of the machines has been associated with specific arrangements of pin punctures. Five such arrangements have been identified.

The first experiment took place in early 1881 and apparently involved a single machine which was used first in Boston, then transferred to New York City for about a week, and finally to Washington, DC. for about two months. Further experiments, presumably with new machines began in September 1881.

An example of the first machine during its use in Washington DC. One of only two on postal cards and the only example on a penalty card. While the pin system was usually less successful in puncturing card surfaces, this card is unusual in showing all six of the Group 1 pin holes, approximately 5 mm. apart.

Third Class usage, believed to be 1882. One of three recorded copies all undated and with an inverted C in the canceller. The Group 1A pin punctures are a line of six, approximately 3.3 mm apart. This example shows five of the holes.

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Leavitt Experimental Cancels , Pin Puncture Group 2

These cancels are associated with pin punctures in two groups of four, with the two groups separated by about 23 mm. The canceller is a new design: a combination of a barred oval with a D (the only recorded service letter) and eight short bars. Known from September 30 to December 20, 1881

Four visible pin marks conform to the appropriate format, but the second, lower, group is absent. Earliest documented usage for thls cancel

Five out of eight evident on this cover

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Leavitt Experimental Cancels

Pin Puncture Group 2: A New-Year’s Progression, with a Surprise Ending

A new canceller was introduced at the end of 1881 with the same arrangement of two sets of four pin marks. Unfortunately, in early 1882 the new year-date slug had not arrived. A series of adjustments was made until the new slug was on hand.

The new design of the canceller was in use from December 20, 1881 to April 19, 1882. Ten days into 1882, the ‘82 year slug had not been received, and the old slug was inverted. Ten days later, the new year was in place, but the time was inverted (not prevlously reported). After another ten days, all is well, but the canceller has a distinct downward tilt, and the pin punctures seem to show a different spacing.

Dec 30, 1881

Jan 10, ["1882"]

Jan 20, 1882

Jan 30, 1882

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Leavitt Experimental Cancels Pin Puncture Group 3: A New Discovery

The thin paper of this flamboyant advertising cover, cancelled at the same time as the last cover on the previous page, clearly shows the position of the pins (one tearing the cover) confirming that a different machine was in use. The markings are those of Group 3, a design with two groups of three pins, an arrangement previously reported in two machines used concurrently for about a month in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The existence of a Group 3 machine in Boston is first reported in this exhibit. This suggests that at least one of the machines was returned to Boston where the canceller was replaced

Downward tilt of the Baltimore canceller suggests that this was the machine later used in Boston.

Updated February 3, 2020