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French Cancelling Machine: Exploring NPM's Offsite Attic

French cancelling machine, front
French cancelling machine, front 

Detail of canceling mechanism and manufacture's label
Detail of canceling mechanism and manufacture's label

What is this object?  It is a cancelling machine manufactured in France, although it has an American-made motor.  It was possibly used at the Benjamin Franklin Station, but that location has not yet been verified and there is some conflicting evidence that points to other spots.  It is 13 inches high, 28.5 inches wide, and 29 inches deep, and it weighs 185 pounds.  Beyond that, we know very little about it. 

What is its significance? When was it used?  Why does the Smithsonian own it?  As a curator, part of my job is researching the objects in our collection, and sometimes that means being a detective to track down lost information. 

My first lead is the label “Sté. L’Outillage R. B. V. Constructeur.”  This is the imprint of a company founded in 1913 by three engineers, Monsieurs Roux, Braconnier and Vorms.  It also gives a potential date of manufacture for the machine, because this style was produced between 1932 and 1951, although it could have been kept in use for long after that.

Side view of cancelling machine
Side view

Next I am going to search postal purchasing records to see if there is any information about foreign-made machinery.  Was this a cancelling machine used in a military post office in Europe?  Then I am going to look at the curious General Electric motor.  Was it original to the design or was it a replacement part?  Was the motor a modification for use in America, which runs on a different power standard than France? 

This cancelling machine is the first object to be tackled in a massive project by the National Postal Museum (NPM) to consolidate, document, and research its three-dimensional objects in offsite storage.

Exhibit specialist Dan Falk opens the crate containing the French cancelling machine
Exhibit specialist Dan Falk opens the crate containing the French cancelling machine

Museums usually only have a small percentage of their collections on exhibit at any given time.  At NPM we have less than 1% of our collection currently on display.  The rest of our objects are in storage.  Although we keep many objects in our collections storage areas at the museum, many of our larger objects have been scattered among several offsite storage facilities maintained by the Smithsonian for decades.

Beginning last year, we moved many of these collections to a single location provided by the U.S. Postal Service.  The Collections Department, which is responsible for cataloging and tracking our accessioned objects, is now opening up the crates—some that have been sealed for 40 years—and updating our catalog records.  We are photographing each object and creating a digital record on Arago, our online collections database.  The long range goal is to identify objects to put on exhibit at the museum as we renovate our galleries.

The storage room holds approximately 75 crates, pallets, and painting racks
The storage room holds approximately 75 crates, pallets, and painting racks.

As for the French cancelling machine, museum technician Rebecca Johnson, who is recording the initial uncrating of objects, was surprised by the contents of the first box.  “It was the heaviest object I’ve ever had to move!” she remarked. Other members of the museum have stepped in to help. Aurelie Henry, a French native who works in the Education Dept., is helping out with translations and using her contacts with French postmasters to dig up more information. 

Want to help solve mysteries?

The Curatorial Department is updating their research files on all of these objects. Please feel free to contact Nancy Pope ( directly if you have any leads on the French cancelling machine.


Early cancelling machine patent models

Cancelling Machine Data. Industrial Engineering Division, Office of Research and Engineering.  (Washington: U.S. Post Office Department, 1964)

Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums.  Ed. Scott G. Paris.  (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002)

Written by Allison Marsh
November 2007