The Fascinating Reason Old Postage Stamps Were Sometimes Perforated With Initials

Collector Jon Johnson has spent a lifetime chasing these "stamps full of holes."

Collecting Perfins - Social imageJon Johnson

When I earned my Collector’s Badge as a 12-year-old Boy Scout in Prince George, B.C., I had no idea it marked the start of a journey that would last the rest of my life. It all started when I requested stamps that were on the envelopes we received from friends and family. I began organizing them into a collection and worked on it periodically, whenever the weather was inclement.

Six years later, while attending college, I joined the Prince George Stamp Club as its youngest member. At each monthly meeting, some time was devoted to show-and-tell where I presented my latest discovery, only to be disheartened when other members inevitably said, “Oh, I have five or six of those.” It took me more than a year—and countless hours of fun at the local stamp shop—before two of my discoveries were met with dead silence at show-and-tell. I had found two stamps, full of holes, that no one else had in their collection.

A Passion For Perfins

One of the stamps had the initials “CPR” perforated into it. My paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather and one uncle were lifetime employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway, so there was an instant family connection. It was then that I decided to focus my collecting solely on “perfins,” as these stamps with perforated initials were known. At an average cost of five cents each, they fit my college budget well. Even today, common perfins are quite affordable at around 25 cents each.

Recognizing that perfins were unusual, I promptly got my hands on a reference book, Canadian Stamps with Perforated Initials – 3rd Ed., produced by the British North America Philatelic Society (BNAPS), a group that I joined in 1973. I learned that stamps were perforated with the company’s initials to reduce pilferage, a feature achieved today by company postage metres.

A Stamp Perforating MachineJon Johnson
A perforator machine.

A Stamp Collector’s Road Trip

Six years after leaving college, I realized that I had never been east of British Columbia. So, I embarked on a solo camping trip from Vancouver to St. John’s in 1978. To give the trip some focus, I visited companies that used perfins to see if they still had their perforator machines. As luck would have it, the first individual I spoke to was the vice president for the CPR’s Prairie Division in Winnipeg, who’s first job had been perforating their stamps! Even with his help, we were unable to find the perforator he had operated. Later in the trip, I managed to locate several machines and was able to study how they operated.

When the road trip concluded, I settled in Calgary, where I teamed up with another avid perfin collector, Gary Tomasson. Since 1980, he and I have produced further editions of Canadian Stamps with Perforated Initials and written numerous articles on company and government perfins.

The two perfins I started with have expanded into a collection of more than 10,000 mounted stamps, in more than two dozen binders and several hundred more still attached to their original envelopes. Now that I’ve recently retired, I have a lot more time to have fun chasing stamps full of holes.

The latest edition of Canadian Stamps with Perforated Initials by Jon Johnson and Gary Tomasson is free to download.

Next, check out 20 mind-blowing artifacts you’ll find in Canadian museums.

Originally Published in Our Canada