The killer on the cover -- reading into the clues

I have always had a love for the postal services. Think about it – no matter where you live in the world, the (United States) Postal Service will have delivered to your door a letter or a package. And for their time, their gasoline, their airplane flights – the cost to the individual is the price of a stamp. From reading about the Pony Express in my younger days to now becoming an epistolary historical detective – there are stories to tell!

Antique mail with hand cancelled stamps and cachet on yellowed envelopes

Very recently I had the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the history of the American mail system. And it turns out that the history is a collectors’ boon! Take any old letter for example. We start with the envelope (the ‘cover’). On it will be a destination mailing address, a return address (hopefully all legible!), a postage due stamp for payment, and some kind of postmark denoting the arrival time and location (also called a ‘killer’).

Close up of machine cancelled postage stamp through marine magnifying glass

While stamp collecting ( philately) has been a hobby I was familiar with, I find the pastime of collecting vintage postcards ( deltiology) and postmarks a new one.

Antique mail with cancelled Washington stamp on spotted New York City envelope

The condition of the cover matters to collectors, as does the legibility of the cancellation marks and whether or not it was hand stamped (antique) or machine stamped (can still be vintage). Then of course there are the multitude of designs – and just as with stamps, these are varied and have a story to tell. From an early parallel Confederate mail system during the Civil War to the military mail censorships during wartime – there are many stories that the killers on the covers will tell if you only know how to read them.

Antique mail with cancelled Confederacy postage stamp

So the next time you open your mailbox, look at the postmark. Look for legibility in the postmark, look for centering, and the condition of the stamp and its artwork – stories abound if you only know what to look for.

Postcard wavy cancellation postmark lines over Yosemite stamp

Photo credits: Heather Mcardle.

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September 04, 2020


You're welcome, William.  Somehow in doing the same tasks that you are working on I found items that I could 'see' as interesting to photograph.  I'm not sure of their value for Buyers, but I have found that the topics I think will sell generally do not do well as I would have thought and those that do sell surprise me!  At least in exploring these types of esoteric and unusual concepts I keep myself interested and engaged - especially important these days still being a bit cooped up and socially restricted.  Best of luck to you!

August 21, 2020


Extremely interesting! I never heard it called a 'killer' before. I just returned from cleaning out my father's house and brought home a bunch of old letters and papers. You make me a bit more enthusiastic to go through them over the next few weeks. Thanks! William 

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