The Boston Post Office, and the Development of Machine Cancellation (Exhibit Text Frame 4 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 4 of the Barlow Boston Machine Cancel History Exhibit.

To see all of the exhibit frame images, click on Frame 4 exhibit frame images.

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American Postal Machines Company , Earliest Flag Cancel

The flag cancel is arguably the most distinctive and popular machine cancellation ever produced in the United States. The American Postal Machines Company, which had been supplying cancelling machines since 1884, fitted the first flag die into one of its existing machines in the Boston Main Office on October 31, 1894. The last flag machine was retired at Sidney Center, New York in 1941. In the intervening years some 7,000 varieties were created for more than 3,000 cities in all 48 states. Of those varieties about 250 were issued by the Boston Main Office, and nearly 200 more were used in that city’s various branch offices. Boston was, by far, the most prolific user of the locally—manufactured flag machines.

The first flag cancel on the flrst day of use. Four examples with this date are known: three on covers and one a 2x4 cut from an envelope. This copy has the earliest time of day at 6:00 PM. Two others carry a time of 7:45 PM, and the fourth example was cancelled at 11:30 PM.

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Variant Dials of the First Flag

Generally a flag die remained with a single machine throughout its life. Dies for dials, which had to be regularly removed, were often interchanged in offices with several machines. Five different dials have been associated with the earliest flag die, the first of which was apparently used only from October 31 to midday November 1, 1894. Differences in the shapes of some letters, position of the comma, and rim damage distinguish the variant dials.

Dial 2 (left), used November 1 to December 31, 1894:

Dial 3 (below), used January to late February 1895

Dual 1: oval ‘O’s; damage above ‘M’; period close to ‘S'

Dial 2: oval 'O's Top loop of 'B' small period farther from 'S'

Dial 3: round ‘0's; comma midway between 'N’ and ‘M'

Dial 4: round ‘O’s; second '0’ close to ‘N’; comma nearer to 'N'

Dial 5; oval ‘O’s; second ‘0' far from ‘N’; double rim line above ‘MA’

Dial 5, used April through July 1895. Seen exclusively on third class mail, making dating difficult. Accidental impression of bar die dates to April 1895. Machine B had a flag die before the end of April

Dial 4, used late February through March 1895

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Unusual Die Switches

The first dies with complete flags, including halyards, appeared in early October 1895 on hand—operated American—Bernard machines. But the first such dies made for the high-speed electric-powered Boston machines were not installed until October 23, 1895. At that time six machines were fitted with these ovate dies (3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9). For an unknown reason the dies on 5,7, 8 and 9 were withdrawn and replaced with new dies before the end of October. The dies from 5 and 7 were placed back in service a month or two later with 10 and 12 in their diespaces. The dies from 8 and 9 never reappeared.

Die 7 (above, Oct 29, 1895); replaced (left, Oct 31, 1895); reappeared (below Feb 26, 1896)

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Development of the Ovate Flage Dies

The ‘ovate’ flags, with twelve stars arranged in an elliptical pattern around the thirteenth star, are the earliest flags. Over sixty varieties are recorded from the Boston Main Office. The initial form, with open stripes below the star field, quickly acquired a solid end, a staff, a ball at the top of the staff, and, finally, a halyard. Ovate flags lacking the halyard are unique to Boston.

Same die with a ball atop the staff; diespace blank. In use: April 1 to 4, 1896

New die on machine F with solid left end. In use: 1894—1895

First die with open stripes at left used only on machine H. In use: October 1894 to July 1895

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Ovate Dies

Postmarked Jan 15, 1895 to Constantinople, Turkey; receiving mark on reverse of British Post—Office, Constantinople, Ja 28, 1895.

New die on machine E with full staff. In Use: November 24, 1894 to 1895

Earliest Boston die with halyard. Blank diespace of machine 3. In use: October 23-26, 1895

Prototype of later less—steeply—pitched dies. Blank diespace of machine 4. In use: January 1897

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Ovate Flags Without Diespace

Cancellation dies used in major cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York, generally used letters or numbers to identify individual machines. Only one ovate no—diespace flag is recorded in Boston. A candidate for a second such die is not what it appears.

Top cover: the recorded Boston no—diespace. In use: February to July 1898. Bottom cover: despite a long-time collector’s pencilled assertion new the bottom of the cover, a fabrication. The flag is from machine 9, which here did not print well and was altered. Early flag collectors made such “improvements”, usually for aesthetics rather than deception.

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American Postal Machines Company Flags - Spread-field Flags

The Spread—Field Flag: The Dominant Style

Less than a month after the introduction of the ovate flag a new type appeared, with the thirteen stars arranged in alternating columns of three and two. These spread—field—type flags became the most common type. Used first in Boston and a short time later in Washington, DC. and Chicago, these were the only cities to have flag cancels in 1894. The first machine to display the new type of flag was machine G in late November 1894.

First spread—field flag, without a full staff and lacking halyard and top ball

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American Postal Machines Flags , Remaining Boston Flags of 1894

The other two spread-field flags which were used in 1894 were on machines C and D. Appearing a few days later than the flag on machine G (November 30 for C, and December 4 for D), both had a full staff with a ball at the top.

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , The Flags of 1896

Discovery of a Unique Progression on Machine A

Beginning in 1896 the machines in the Boston Main Office began to receive the new spread—field flag with a halyard. The lettered machines were converted from flags without halyards. The numbered machines previously had American six-bar cancellers. Six machines received the new flags before the end of 1896. Machine A was the first to be changed over, but apparently the ability to return to the old style was retained. Machine F and the four numbered machines received new dies in the last several weeks of the year.

The same flag die (right) with halyard and with an A inserted in the diespace is not known before December 8 and was in use to the end of 1896

The old flag (right) reappeared in late March and possibly continued in use to the end of 1896. This copy March 21, 3:30 pm

The flag (right) with a halyard but without a letter in the diespace appeared on machine A about February 27 and apparently remained in use for less than a month

The two copies of the new flag die (above) with a blank diespace are both dated March 21, 1896, the same day as the example of the old—style flag shown just above them. The times of day—10 am and 6 pm—bracket the time on the old-style flag cover. This is unlikely unless the two dies were on different machines operating simultaneously. The old-style flag was apparently the only machine at station A from April to early December 1896. In December there are also (less dramatic) overlaps between the old and new dies, the latter now with an A filling the diespace. No such overlap has previously been reported in Boston.

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , Letters and Numbers, Ovate and Spread-F1eld

Chronology on Machine 1

Flags with letters in the diespaces lasted only to the end of the 19th century in Boston. Flags with numbers in the diespaces existed both in ovate and spread—field forms. The last ovate flags were gone by 1909, but until that time they had co—existed with the spread-field flags in the numbered machines. Of the 13 machine numbers used in Boston, nine began with the earlier ovate flag dies subsequently changing to the spread—field dies. Four numbered machines began with spread—field flags but included ovates in their chronology. Flag dies were largely hand—made, and minor differences distinguish the dies of the same type. The machine with the most convoluted die sequence was machine 1.

The sole ovate flag die on machine 1, appearing at irregular intervals for relatively short periods

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American Postal Machines Company Flags , A Tortured Life

Changing a Flag Die

The first flag die with a spread field literally led a tortured life. It moved in 1895 with no change beyond a new dial, but early in that year a staff was added to the flag die, while the dial deteriorated toward year end. In 1896 it received another new dial, but in November its G was altered to a sort—of C. In 1897 the new Type B dial was substituted for the old Type D, and shortly thereafter the die went out of service.

Updated February 6, 2020