Collecting New York
Foreign Mail Cancels

By Bill Weiss

Some postmasters and clerks in 19th century U.S. post offices carved fancy designs to "cancel" stamps on mail they processed. Although the New York City post office had, by 1870, a long history of using various fancy killers, at about that time a group of fancy killers began to emerge that would become a popular and challanging collecting area for future generations. To add to their mystique, these fancy killers were only intended to be used on mail which was processed in the Foreign Mail Division sent to foreign destinations. This distinction would seem to set them apart from any other group of cancels that exist from any other city. Many of these killers are lovely and intricate Geometrics, Stars, and Representative designs. In total, over 200 different designs exist from the period between 1870-1880, and to collect them presents the student with a serious and rewarding hobby.

In 1926, well-known stamp dealer J.M. Bartels wrote the first published listing for the Collector's Club Philatelist and later that year an additional list consisting of 74 total designs. In 1933 Edwin Milliken composed a list of 100 different, published in The American Philatelist and in 1942 a 31-page list numbering 116 different types. In 1968 the book New York Foreign Mail Cancellations was published by the Collectors Club of Chicago written by Arthur Van Vlissingen and Morrison Waud that illustrated and listed 157 NYFMs. That work remained the definitive book on the subject until 1990 when the book "The Foreign Mail Cancellations of New York City, 1870-1878" was written and published by William R. Weiss, Jr. Based on his Grand Award winning collection of NYFMs, that book is now considered the definitive book on the subject. When offered by literature dealers, the Van Vlissingen book sells for $50/75., the deluxe edition for $100/150. and the Weiss book for $75.00 retail.

Originally called "New York Geometrics", Bartels grouped NYFMs as 1. Stars; 2. Geometrics; 3. Fancy Designs; 4. Rosettes; 5. Pinwheels; 6. Crossroads. Later students modified these groupings until the Weiss book established large groups consisting of specialized members within the groups; GEOMETRICS include Simple, Circular, Elaborate Negative and Elaborate Positive; STARS include 4-point, 5-point, 8-point and multiple point; REPRESENTATIVE includes Letters, Numbers, Leaves, Simple and Elaborate designs; TRADITIONAL includes Targets, Spokes, Crossroads, Grids, Wedges and Miscellaneous designs. The total is now over 200 different, and more being added as time passes!

All collections are composed of whatever the owner deems appropriate, based on his goals and pocketbook. Some NYFM collectors are contented to try to aquire as many different NYFMs as they can, one of each. Others only collect them on cover. Many are very rare on cover, with some being unique. Some therefore only collect them off cover. Some brave souls attempt to collect every different NYFM on every different stamp used during the 1870-1880 period, AND every cancel on cover, AND as many different on-cover uses as possible! No matter which type of collection you try to form, you will find, as one 1920s-era philatelist called them "perfection of form", that these cancels are a joy to behold and to aquire a well-struck specimen is an experience of great satisfaction.