US RPO Clerk Cancel

History of the RPO

The railroad post office was introduced in the United States on July 28, 1862, using converted baggage cars from the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad (which also delivered the first letter to the Pony Express). A few weeks after the service was introduced, custom-built Railway Post Office (RPO) cars were put into service. Their purpose was to separate the mail for connection with a westbound stagecoach, which departed shortly after the train arrived in St. Joseph. This service lasted about a year. The first permanent railroad post office route was established on August 28, 1864, between Chicago, Illinois, and Clinton, Iowa. This service differed from the 1862 operation in that the mail was was sorted to and received from each post office along the route, as well as the larger post offices beyond the terminus of the route.

The Railway Mail Service organization within the Post Office Department existed from 1864 until September 30, 1948. It was renamed the Postal Transportation Service on October 1, 1948, and existed until 1960. After 1960, management of the Railway Mail Routes, as well as the Highway Post Office Routes, Air Mail Facility, Terminal Railway Post Office, and Transfer Office, was transferred to the Bureau of Transportation.

RPO Clerk cancel

Each RPO clerk was required to have his or her own "dater," usually a rubber stamp showing name, work location, train/travel/tour number (abbreviated "TR") and the date were indicated.
The main purpose of these stamps was to mark cover sheets (used for bundles of mail) or bag labels so that one's work could be traced in case of errors. Occasionally, these markings also appear on the back of special delivery or registered envelopes, indicating that the clerk performed the distribution of that mailpiece.

They were sometimes used as postmarks, or for the convenience of the scribe when marking a missing or temporary piece of mail.

Since each scribe had his own handstamps or sets of them and paid for them himself, there are literally tens of thousands of them and they are not listed in the RPO catalog except as indicated in the preface to the catalog, nor could there ever be a comprehensive listing of them.

Source references:
Rick Kunz, Vice-President, Mobile Post Office Society

Supplement and new findings

Based on my research so far, I have come to the conclusion that one must divide the use of these "Clerk Daters" into two areas.
First, the documents, forms, packing slips, etc. that had to be filled out. The 1887 regulations state that the RPO officials were allowed or expected to use these private stamps for this purpose.
Second are the mandatory "backstamps" on registered and special delivery mail. These were to be used according to "Postal Buletin February 23, 1924" to be postmarked with the "Receiving Postmark of the Office" and not with the private postmarks.
That the private cancels were also used there is undeniable based on the available covers. The private cancels must have been used very early. This is proven by a letter with advertising for these stamps, whose origin I can no longer trace.


VOL. XLV. THE POSTAL BULLETIN, WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 23, 1924 - Page 2. NO. 13401 POSTMASTER . Presidential. February 15, 1924. Special delivery of mail. ORDER NO. 192. OFFICE OF THE POSTMASTER GENERAL, Washington, February 23, 1924.

Postage paid commercial cover with "Special Delivery". Postmarked Dec. 10, 1930, at Rochester, N.Y. Addressed to Somerville, New Jersey.
Reverse: Somerville arrival roll postmark dated 11. December 1930. Also postmarked by an RPO Clerk with route "N.Y.. & CHI" and train number 4 dated 11. December 1930. Clerk's name: E. D. Crouse.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid commercial cover with "Special Delivery". Postmark not legible, return address Newhall, Maine. Addressed to Pasadena, Calif.
Back: RPO postmark of route "N.Y. & Chicago" dated 09. July 1931. Arrival postmark from Pasadena dated 24. July 1931. Also postmark of an RPO Clerk with route "PORTLAND & N.Y." and train number 2 dated 20. July 1931. Clerk's Name: C. E. Fickett.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid "Special Delivery" airmail cover with Los Angeles postmark dated June 01, 1935. Addressed to Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Reverse: postmark of "AIR MAIL FIELD" (probably Fort Worth, Texas) dated 02 June 1935. Arrival postmark of Arkadelphia dated 02 June 1935. Also postmark of a RPO Clerk with route "L. ROCK & FT. WORTH" and train number 2 dated 02. June 1935. Clerk's Name: EARLE DAWSON.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid airmail cover (postal stationery) with "Special Delivery" postmark from Dexter, Maine dated Aug. 09, 1938. Addressed to Columbus, Ohio.
Reverse: postmark of the "AIR MAIL FIELD" in Cleveland, Ohio dated 10. August 1938. Arrival postmark of Columbus, Ohio dated August 10, 1938. Also postmark of a RPO Clerk with route "VANCE & BOS. S.D." and train number 22 dated August 09, 1938. Clerk's name: A. V. STOLPE.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid commercial cover with "Special Delivery" postmark from Lynchburg, VA. dated June 26, 1938. Addressed to Richmond, VA.
Reverse: arrival postmark of Richmond, VA. dated June 27, 1938. Also postmark of an RPO Clerk with route "COL. & NORF. E.D." and train number 16 dated June 27, 1938. Clerk's name: only partially readable.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid "Special Delivery" airmail cover with postmark from Highland Park, Mich. dated Sept. 21, 1937. Addressed to York, Penna.
Reverse: arrival postmark of Detroit, Mich. dated September 21, 1937 and arrival postmark of York, PA. dated September 22 (1937). Also, postmark of an RPO Clerk with route "N.Y.. & PITTS." and train number 39 dated September 21, 1937. Clerk's name: A. W. ZUCK.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid registered cover from Lake Mary, Florida dated 09/18/1946 addressed to Richmond, Va.
Reverse: Stamp of the "Registry Division" of Lake Mary, Florida. Also stamp of RPO Clerk's "M. S. WHITEHEAD" with route "JACK. & TAMPA" and train number 92 dated 09/18/1946.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
Postage paid Special Delivery cover from Marshalltown, Iowa dated 6/15/1938 addressed to San Francisco, Calif. Carried by airmail. Returned to sender as the letter was unclaimed.
Reverse: "Special Delivery" stamp of San Francisco, Calif. Stamp "AIR MAIL." Also stamp of RPO Clerk "Walter Canny" with route "CHI. & OMAHA" and train number 21 dated 6/15/1938.
The RPO Clerk's stamp.
My first misuse of a "Clerk Dater"!
This letter was posted at the railroad post office on the "Ashland - Louisville" route. The stamps were not cancelled with the official stamp of the RPO, but, contrary to the regulations, with the private "Clerk Dater" of a RPO Clerk.
Enlarged scan of the "Clerk Dater". It is unfortunately difficult to read. You can see the train number "23" and the date, August 29, 1922. Also the last name of the RPO Clerk - Mr. Bruner. I have taken the route from a note from a previous owner who specifies it there.

Copyright J├╝rgen Kuseler 2023