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Experimental 1970 Christmas Precancels

by John Hotchner

The message "US Stamps Demonetized" on the cover shown above may come as a surprise to many United States Collectors. Is it true? The answer is that it was, briefly, and Alfred "Tag" Boerger, a Florida dealer caught the moment with the creation of this cover.

The precanceled versions of the 1970 Christmas stamps continued the US Post Office Department's experiment with precancels begun the previous year. In 1969, the basic Christmas stamp was overprinted for use in four cities, as shown below.

The overprinting on the 1969 was done locally. Resulting problems included variations in the precancel mats, and errors in application. The latter included inverts, partial prints, misplaced prints and other, and made the 1969 Christmas issue a fascinating one to collect. But that is a story for another column. The mistakes in approach of 1969 were to be corrected by the approach taken in 1970.

The precancels on the 1970 Christmas stamps (6 Nativity and 6 Toys block) are uniform, applied by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as an additional color.

Despite the USPOD intention to use the precancels to speed up Christmas mail in 68 specific cities, the precancel does not include city names. The precancels were not intended to be valid beyond those 68 cities, thus limiting the number of stamps that could be reused.

However, Christmas cards often go to local friends and relations. The USPOD expected some reuse, but was unprepared for how many people actually took the trouble to soak off and reuse 6 stamps. The USPOD response was to conclude that the experiment was only a limited success. It did save time and effort on the mail process side, but the revenue loss due to reuse was unacceptable.

In response to the latter, the POD later attempted to introduce damage control by announcing, at the end of the 1970 Christmas season, that the precanceled versions of the 1970 stamps would become invalid January 31, 1971. Postal patrons were invited to trade in mint precancels after January 31 for equivalent value in other postage.

Boerger prepared his covers shortly after the announcement was made. An announcement rescinding the order to invalidate came too late to stop Boerger's processing of the covers. An interesting collection of covers could be made showing the history of these precancels, including normal use from the intended cities, and from others; obvious reuse that was caught and charged postage due prior to January 31; precancels not recognized; an improper "postage due" after January 31; and usage that was unimpeded after January 31.

As Boerger noted in a 1984 article, "Collectors, dealers, and philatelic investors hurried to unload their precanceled stock in order to avoid a monetary loss. Although the decision to invalidate these stamps was later changed, it did create a sort of philatelic panic.

Perhaps because of its large print totals, the 6 Nativity is shown at 12 mint for both the non-precanceled and precanceled versions in the 1998 Scott catalogue.

A total of 638,700,000 of the former were produced and only 358,245,000 of the latter. Based on these totals, one might expect a price difference of 2 to 1. But the philatelic significance of the precancel, and its 6 individual price, probably meant that many more of these than of the normal issue were kept in collectors' hands.

The 6 Toys block is a different kettle of fish. About 490 million of the Toys stamps were produced without a precancel; or about 122,314,000 of each design. An unprecanceled block of four catalogs at $1.90.

The precanceled version comparative totals are 440 million total or 110 million individual. The catalogue value of the precanceled block is $3.75. I'm sure this reflects the fact that a 24 investment was required, so more were unloaded and lost to collectors.

The USPOD didn't give up on precancels without one more try. In 1974, the innovative self-stick, die-cut Christmas stamp shown in Figure 3 was issued. If you look carefully at the illustration, you will see crossed lines over the form of the dove. Those crossed lines were actually cut into the paper of the stamps. That, and the word "PRECANCELED" above the 10, constitutes the precancelation. This stamp did solve the reuse problem since it didn't soak off paper. Pulling it off tended to split the stamp into four pieces because of the cut crossed lines.

Still, the self-stick technology was expensive and was not considered to be perfected for mass production and use, so Christmas precancels disappeared.

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Revised: 04/12/2006 04/10/2012 kw