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The Broken Circle and Other Early Postmarks of Canada


The broken circles are the iconic Canadian postmarks, used throughout the country for over a century. Many postal historians -- such as Boggs [1], Campbell [2-5], Holmes [6], and Jarrett [7] -- collected information on the broken circles. These authors used different classifications for the various broken circle types. Boggs listed what we call broken circles as "no outer circle," or Type IV. Both Holmes and Campbell used the grouping system of Goodwin, calling those postmarks not having a full-circle outside line "round" postmarks. The round postmarks were subdivided into four subgroups. In Jarrett [7], broken circle town postmarks include the Types 160 to 162, 225 to 260, and 263 to 271. Books on individual provinces or territories have included other classifications.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Ferd and Nicole Belanger, Paul Hughes, and Gray Scrimgeour compiled a series of lists of the broken circle (or split ring) postmarks of Canada. A few of the smaller lists were published (e.g., Athabaska, Keewatin, and NWT). Many of these lists have been recently updated; they are available to members on this website, and their data are also being inserted into the on-line database. Bruce Graham continued this project, culminating in the publication [26] in 1999 of Ontario Broken Circles, which formed the basis of the Ontario database available on this website. Graham's compilation was expanded to include other early postmarks, including manuscripts, straight lines, double circles, and the early circle datestamps (these other early postmarks are described at the end of this introduction). Bob Smith has accumulated updates to the data of the Ontario book. The classification of Canada's broken circle postmarks was described in the article The Broken Circle Postmarks of Canada, PHSC Journal, Vol. 42, pp. 35-36 (June 1985) . Graham used this classification in his book and it is used in the lists and databases appearing on this website. Other authors have volunteered data for other provinces.

Broken circle postmarks were the most common type of handstruck daters used in Canada, but they now have been almost completely replaced by full-circle datestamps, machine cancels, and rubber stamps. Production of broken circles for Canada ceased in the 1930s, but continued for Newfoundland for about a decade later. The name "broken circle" is synonymous with these other popular descriptions: split ring, split circle, part circle, interrupted circle, and single (or double) arc.

It is important to keep in mind that political boundaries have changed many times over the years. For example, the map below shows Canada in 1895. These changes complicate listings of postmarks as well as post-offices, but are an important aspect of Canadian postal history.

Library and Archives Canada. retrieved 2010-07-12

Classification Scheme

We use a simple and flexible classification scheme for describing the broken circle postmarks of Canada and the British North America provinces. There are four basic types of broken circles, denoted by a letter A, B, C, or D, depending on the number and type of circles or arcs. It should be noted that the on-line database also contains a number of other postmark types, which are described further below. The steel CDS (circular date stamp) postmarks have been removed to a database of their own.

In Type A postmarks (commonly called single broken circles or split rings), there are two arcs but there is no outer circle. In Type B (double broken circles), there are two pairs of arcs. Type C (open broken circle) is an open circle with no arcs, while Type D (enclosed broken circle) has two arcs and an outer circle.

Following this letter, there is a number which designates information about the inscribed text. These types are:

  1. A common abbreviation for the province (or territory) appears at the bottom (e.g., 'ONT' or 'ONT.', 'B.C.', etc.).
  2. An alternate or less common abbreviation for the province at the bottom (e.g., 'U.C', 'U.C.', 'C.W', 'C.W.', 'L.C', 'C.E', etc.).
  3. The province (or territory or district) name appears in full at the bottom (e.g., 'YUKON' or 'QUEBEC').
  4. The designation CANADA (or DOMN OF CANADA) at the bottom.
  5. Nothing appears at the bottom. Province may appear with town name at top.
  6. Duplex hammer (as in the Berri duplex, see the Duplex database for complete information).
  7. Special use hammers, or unusual arrangements.
In the database, as we describe below, the postmark text is given in full as it appears on the postmark, so the details of the classification scheme as it applies to each item will be clear.

Finally, the postmark type may also include additional letters that help to describe the postmark further. These are

  • s: the postmark type used a serif font (in the absence of an 's' designator, an unserifed font was used)
  • x: the date was not included in type. A manuscript date was inserted by the postal employee.

We display here a number of broken circle postmarks with their type assignments to help you understand the classification.

Type A1 Type A2X Type A3 Type A4
A1 A2x A3 A4
Type B1 Type B2 Type B2S Type B2SX
B1 B2 B2s B2sx
Type B3s Type B5SX Type C2 Type C2
B3s B5sx B5 B7s
Type C2 Type D1
C2 D1

About Proof Dates

The term "proof date" refers to the date recorded in the proof impression of the hammer. Proof impressions were made by both the manufacturer (in most cases Pritchard Andrews Company of Ottawa) and the Post Office. The proof impressions were made available by the National Postal Museum of Canada (part of Library and Archives Canada). To our knowledge, no further proof material exists. Five sets of British North America proof strikes have survived the years. The impressions in the British Post Office Proof Impression Books span most of the period from 1839 to 1852. A proof impression book of the manufacturer of the postmark devices in Ottawa (Pritchard & Mingard and Pritchard Andrews) is in the archives of The Philatelic Foundation in New York City. The entries in this book cover two decades, from February 1876 to April 1895, with a gap from 1884 to 1886. Additional pages with several months from each of 1875, 1876, 1895, 1903 to 1905, 1908 to 1911, 1917, 1919, 1920, 1922 to 1925, and 1928 exist. Finally, the complete Pritchard Andrews impression books that date from March, 1908 to July, 1953 (4457 pages!) have been examined. None of these proof sets is complete, as occasionally the proof examples have come unglued from the books or have been cut out, or pages are missing. However, without the available proof impressions, we would be lacking information on many broken circle postmarks. Most of the available proof impressions appear in the books Proof Strikes of Canada, edited by J. Paul Hughes and published by Robert A. Lee, Kelowna, BC. Impressions of broken circles appear in Volumes 1 to 4 and Volume 36 of this series.

Other Early Postmarks

Also included in the broken circle database are five other types of postmarks used in some of the eastern provinces in the nineteenth century. These are designated by the following abbreviations:

  • cds: circular datestamp (single solid outer rim)
  • dc: double circle (two solid circles)
  • ms: manuscript
  • ov: oval
  • sl: straight line
The first of these refers to the unusual single circle postmarks, including for example a group that was issued in 1857. These 1857 devices were typically of American manufacture. Many of them were termed 'changelings' by Campbell [4], because over time the initial single rim became two closely-spaced rings due to the wear of the soft metal used in the electroplating process by which they were made. The preponderance of CDS datestamps are (or will be) listed in the CDS database.

Changeling early Changeling late
Changeling (early) Changeling (late)

There are two basic types of double circles: those with serifed italic lettering, issued in the late 1820s, and those with upright or Roman serifed lettering, which Campbell suggests were made in 1832 and later. In addition there are several locally-made devices, such as those of Prescott and Niagara.

Middleton DC3 Yarmouth DCs
Middleton DC Yarmouth DCs

Manuscript refers to postmarks that are written completely by hand (not just the dates). Postmasters often applied manuscript postmarks during the few days immediately after the opening of their office and before they received a marking device. They were following Post Office orders to mark their outgoing mail clearly. Manuscript postmarks probably were used on other occasions when a normal postmarking device was damaged, before the postmaster received a repaired or new hammer.

Blayney MS
Blayney ms

'Oval' refers to double oval markings, used early in the nineteenth century. These are rare to very rare.

Vittoria Oval
Vittoria ov

Straight-line postmarks were used very early in the 19th century, and were often the first marking device used by the earliest post offices in the country. Their reported dimensions are problematic because strikes were often unclear, and the half-millimetre lengths cited may not be accurate.

Windsor sl Vittoria sl
Windsor sl Vittoria sl

Rarity Factors and Prices

We have made no attempt to estimate rarity factors (RF values) for any broken circle postmarks. RF values can be assigned only after a comprehensive inventory has been taken of existing strikes. We have no evidence yet for postal use of many postmarks that were proofed, and there are undoubtedly broken circles that remain undiscovered. Because the use of broken circle postmarks spans virtually all of Canada's postal history, the price of a stamp, cut-square, or cover often will depend on factors other than the postmark (e.g., stamp value, era, location, and other premiums). In considering the difficulty of obtaining a strike, a collector should consider the size of the town and the volume of mail handled, the length of time the post office was open, and the length of time a postmark was in use. The proof date for a later postmark could indicate the end of use of an earlier device.

Searching the Database

A search of the database may be performed by entering search terms in the sidebar at right that appears when you navigate to the broken circles area of the website. The search is performed by province/territory (select one or none from the menu). In some cases, upon selection of the province, a county menu will appear that you can use to refine your search to a single county. (This menu will not appear for provinces that do not have counties.) Below this you will find a textbox in which you may type search terms. As described below, this part of the search will look for matches in the postmark text field as well as the notes fields. You can enter any part of the postoffice name, from just a few letters to full words. Finally, there is a menu in which you can select to search for individual postmark types. Please note that under certain circumstances (in which too many search results would be returned), the search will not be completed and you will have to refine it further. If you have cookies enabled in your browser, the system will remember your most recent search such that when you return to the sidebar, the previous search will already be filled in. This can be quite useful for repeated searches or refinements.

Upon obtaining a listing of postmarks, you will notice that for each item there are two icons to the left of each line. The first icon, which resembles a pencil, may be clicked to go to a detailed display of all of the data associated with that postmark. Clicking the second icon will display a quick view of the postmark, if an image is available in the database. The availability of an image is indicated by the second icon having two states: a grayed out icon indicates that no image is available, while a brightly colored icon indicates that an image is available.

If you have information about individual postmarks that does not appear in the database, or if you feel information may be incorrect, please contact us. A list of people in charge of various parts of the broken circles database and how to contact them appears in the sidebar (see the 'Make a Report' link at the bottom of the sidebar).

The Broken Circle Database: a Guide to the Data Fields

By navigating to a detailed display for a given postmark, you will see all of the data fields that are present in the database. Here are a few notes about some of them.

The wording for the Postmark Text field is the exact text appearing on the postmark. (In some cases, we have not completed the entry of the postmark text in the database, and instead the post office name may be listed. Where proofstrikes exist, it will be fairly easy to complete this task but for items that were not proofed, help from PHSC members is encouraged.)

Each postmark has a unique decimal identifying number (called 'Town_id') associated with it. This number is used to sort the lists that are obtained when you do a search. These numbers have been assigned so that the sorting is done by office and period of use. Since this number is unique, it can also be used when making reports.

There are a variety of dates associated with each postmark, including the proof date if it exists, as well as the earliest (eku or erd) and latest (lku or lrd) recorded date of use. The dates of use are constantly being updated as new reports come in.

Measuring Broken Circles

The postmark type classification scheme has been described above. The diameter of each postmark is reported to the closest half millimeter. Measurements are made using accurate transparent rulers or a Bridger & Kay cancellation gauge. Diameters were measured from covers, cut-squares, stamps, and photocopies of proof material. If a strike is not perfectly round, then the vertical diameter is reported, for consistency. Note that the size of a strike from a dater can vary when the hammer ages and wears, when the ink smears, or when a strike is applied imperfectly. For the Type A postmarks, the end-to-end lengths (in mm) of the arcs are also recorded in the database. These measurements are indicated in the accompanying diagram.


Original References

  1. The Postage Stamps and Postal History of Canada.
    W.S. Boggs, Chambers Publishing, Kalamazoo (1945); reprinted Quarterman, Boston (1974).

  2. Canada Post Offices 1755-1895.
    F.W. Campbell, Quarterman Press, Boston (1972).

  3. Canada Postal History.
    F.W. Campbell, privately printed (1958 with later addenda).

  4. Canada Postmark List to 1875.
    F.W. Campbell, privately printed (1958 with addenda dated 1960 and 1963).

  5. Post Offices 1876 to 1907 in Alberta-Assiniboia-Saskatchewan.
    F.W. Campbell, privately printed (1962).

  6. Specialized Philatelic Catalogue of Canada & British North America, 8th ed.
    L. Seale Holmes, Ryerson Press, (1954).

  7. B.N.A. Book. "Stamps of British North America."
    F. Jarrett, W.R. Phillips & Co., Toronto (1929).

  8. A Historical Atlas of Canada, Second Edition.
    D.G.G. Kerr, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Don Mills (1966).

  9. The Post Offices of British Columbia 1858-1970.
    G.H. Melvin, Wayside Press Ltd., Vernon (1972).

  10. The Boundaries of Canada, Its Provinces and Territories.
    N.L. Nicholson, Queen's Printer, Ottawa (1964).

  11. The Boundaries of the Canadian Confederation.
    N.L. Nicholson, Macmillan, Toronto (1979).

  12. Reports of the Postmasters General.

  13. Records of the Post Office Department of Canada.

  14. Post Offices Established in the Districts of Saskatchewan, Assiniboia, and Alberta.
    H. Wilding, Post West, Volume 1 (1974).

  15. Post Offices Opened before 1900 in Manitoba.
    H. Wilding, Post West, Volumes 2 and 3 (1975-1976).

  16. The Postal History of Yukon Territory Canada.
    R.G. Woodall, Quarterman Publications Inc., Lawrence (1976).

More Recent References

  1. 2000 Postmarks of Prince Edward Island 1814 to 1995.
    G.D. Murray, Conestoga Press, Thornbury (1996).

  2. British Columbia Post Offices, Expanded Revised Edition.
    W. Topping, editor, privately printed, Vancouver (1991).

  3. Broken Circle Postmarks of Canada.
    G. Scrimgeour, British North America Philatelic Society Ltd., Exhibit Series No. 16 (1999).

  4. Catalogue of Canadian Duplex Cancellations., Third Revised Edition.
    S. Cloutier, Conestoga Press, Thornbury (2005).

  5. Emerging Saskatchewan. The Postal History of Territorial Assiniboia 1882-1905.
    D.W. Thompson and N.E. Wagner, Auxano Philatelic Services Inc., Calgary (2003).

  6. Les Bureaux de Poste du Québec.
    A. Walker avec F. Bélanger, Le marché philatélique de Montréal, Montréal (1987).

  7. Manitoba Post Offices.
    W.G. Robinson, editor, privately printed, W. Topping, Vancouver (1988).

  8. Newfoundland Specialized Stamp Catalogue, Seventh Edition.
    J. M. Walsh and J.G. Butt, Walsh's Philatelic Services, St. John's (2009).

  9. Northwest Territories Postal Cancellations 1907-1986.
    K. O'Reilly, The Unitrade Press, Toronto (1987).

  10. Nova Scotian Postal History, Volume I, Post Offices (1754-1981).
    L.B. Macpherson, Petheric Press, Halifax (1982).

  11. Ontario Broken Circles.
    W.B. Graham, edited by D. Handelman, Postal History Society of Canada, Ottawa (1999).

  12. Ontario Post Offices, Volume I, An Alphabetical Listing.
    R.C. Smith, The Unitrade Press, Toronto (1988).

  13. Ontario Post Offices, Volume II: by County and District.
    R.C. Smith, The Unitrade Press, Toronto (1988).

  14. Post Offices of Alberta 1876-1986.
    N. Hughes, privately printed, Edmonton (1986).

  15. Post Offices of Alberta, Expanded Revised Edition.
    W.G. Robinson, editor, Saskatoon Stamp Centre, Saskatoon (1998).

  16. Post Offices of New Brunswick 1783-1930.
    G.E. MacManus, Jim A. Hennock Ltd., Toronto (1984).

  17. Saskatchewan Post Offices.
    W.G. Robinson, editor, privately printed, W. Topping, Vancouver (1987).

  18. Territorial Post Offices of Canada.
    W.G. Robinson, editor, privately printed, W. Topping, Vancouver (1990).

  19. The Canada Postal Act and Post Offices 1878 and The 'Canada' Split Ring Proofs June 1879 - January 1880.
    B.H. Symonds, Post-West Publishing & Printing Ltd., Edmonton (1982).

  20. The Nova Scotia Post. Its Offices, Masters and Marks 1700-1867.
    J.J. MacDonald, The Unitrade Press, Toronto (1985).

  21. The Postal History of the District of Assiniboia 1882-1905.
    R. Kell, The Unitrade Press, Toronto (1987).