Update coming to squared circle handbook

By Jesse Robitaille

Originating in Great Britain in 1879, the 140-year-old squared circle cancellation is the main focus of one the British North America Philatelic Society (BNAPS) study groups.

The group’s latest venture, which was unanimously agreed upon at its most recent meeting, is updating the 18-year-old fifth edition of The Squared Circle Cancellations of Canada. The 329-page handbook was edited by the late Jack Gordon, who also served as the group’s chairman and newsletter editor before his death in 2013.

“I remember my first introduction to squared circles was a book,” said study group member William Radcliffe, who’s also the vice-president of BNAPS’ more than 20 active study groups. “The more information you get out, the more collectors you can get interested in your hobby.”

Nearly 10 members – all in attendance at the group’s last meeting in Québec – voted to update the handbook and possibly establish an electronic database or live document.

“Some people are all electronic, but some people want a hard copy of the book to look up a squared circle,” said Radcliffe.

Study group vice-chair Rick Friesen, who volunteered to head up the database task, said he’s unsure what format the updated handbook or electronic database will follow.

Both he and Radcliffe are hoping for a consistent outpouring of new reports from members to continue pushing forward the group, which was established at BNAPS’ 1976 convention in San Francisco, Calif.

“You could show up at a show today, go through a dealer’s squared circle stuff and see an upside down ‘5’ that you don’t even recognize – and that’s probably never been reported,” said Radcliffe. “If the book is done electronically, we could report that error tomorrow.”

The downside with the hard copy – any hard copy – is collectors would “have no idea if that error exists in that specific town.”

“By doing it electronically, we’d have a constant update that anybody who’s a member of BNAPS can go in and see if they have the latest date in Port Perry, for example,” said Radcliffe, who offered another astute example.

Long-time dealer Frank Hoyles, of Blenheim, Ont., carries an extensive stock of squared circle cancellations. He was on the bourse at last year’s BNAPEX in Québec.

A collector with a 1907-dated squared circle cancel might reference the hard copy of the handbook, which might have 1905 as the latest date; however, the latest date of the frequently updated electronic version might have 1908 as the latest date.

These changes will be “relatively easy to deal with,” Friesen added, but other aspects of the update, which has no finish date, will present some challenges.

“For example, how many strikes are there on three-cent jubilees; if the book reports 20, are there now 30 or 40? And how do we get at that kind of data?”

Starting with the fourth edition of the handbook in 1981, the amount of known examples of squared circles – as well as their latest dates of use – was determined by “quantities reported on roster forms by collectors.”

Although the handbook calls it a “less subjective approach,” an update will require widespread participation among members – similar to when Gordon edited the group’s newsletter, The Roundup Annex, from 1996-2011.

For example, if the 1981 edition of the handbook lists 20 examples of Port Perry for a specific stamp, study group members could be polled about their own collections and that number could increase if more examples are then accounted for.

“The problem is if we poll everybody and come up with five—where are the other 20?”

Prior to his death in 2013, Gordon made a call for “rosters” in the newsletter, where he would also sometimes list updates.

“Your roster would show how many strikes of Saint John you have, for example, and on what stamp you have them,” said Radcliffe, who added he was given Gordon’s notes, which lead up to 2006—five years after the handbook’s last edition was published.

“That’s where we’re going to have to start from because that’s the last written information. Then we have to go back through all the newsletters from 2006 to check what’s been reported and what’s unreported. The only changes made to the book from that point on would be what’s reported in those newsletters and then whatever’s newly reported from you and I—because I know we’ve all made some finds that you didn’t know existed since 2006.”

Exactly what’s included in the book will depend on what’s decided by “a quorum” of members, Radcliffe added.

“The start-up point is Jack’s book, and then we’ll decide – as a group – what we want to add and what we don’t want to add to the printed form, but anything can be added to the electronic form.”

Gordon was inducted into the BNAPS fellowship, the Order of the Beaver, in 2010.


Squared circle postmarks originated 140 years ago as an improvement upon the larger, less convenient duplex cancels, which cancelled a stamp with one portion of its device (the killer) while the other recorded the date and post office (the dater).

Debuting in Canada in 1860, the long-handled duplex devices were difficult to ink and apply.

Nearly two decades later, squared circle postmarks first came on the postal scene in Britain. The straightforward device had a square or rectangular cancel with inked lines or bars leading out to the edges, surrounding a datestamp in the centre.

Squared circle postmarks came to Canada in 1880 – only a year after they were first used in Britain – but were only used in the capital city of Ottawa.

In 1893, two standardized squared circle cancels were issued to post offices in major towns across Canada. Generally only used for about a decade, these cancels remain a popular area of postal history because of their depth: more than 300 towns, a wide range of types (such as thick or thin bars) as well as hammer, date and other varieties are listed in The Squared Circle Cancellations of Canada.

The Squared Circle Cancels Study Group will host its next meeting at Orapex in Ottawa on May 5. The 1 p.m. meeting will be hosted by Bruce Kalbfleisch.

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