Small and large numerals
Before the numeral cancels
The era of the numeral cancels marked the end of the Post Office's trial and error approach to cancelling postage stamps. Since 1849 and the introduction of the postage stamp in France, the Post Office had moved on from cancelling stamps using the "means at hand" (pen strokes, date stamps, linear stamps,...) to the grill cancel, which only lasted 3 years, and finally to the small numerals lozenges from 1852 to 1862 and the large numerals lozenges from 1863 to 1876.
At the end of 1851, the postal administration decided to update its nomenclature of post offices and at the same time decided to change the method of cancellation.
From January 1852, postage stamps were cancelled with the small numerals cancels (Petits Chiffres). This cancel consists of a rhombus of dots at the centre of which is the number of the post office in the new nomenclature of post offices.
It is often thought that the "official" date for the use of the "Petits Chiffres" is 1 January 1852, but in fact this date is the date of the circular announcing the introduction of this cancelling stamp.
The small numerals arrived in post offices in the first half of January 1852.
Extract from circular no. 77 of 1 January 1852.
In 1862, the French Post Office overhauled its nomenclature of post offices and created a new cancelling stamp: the large cancel (Gros Chiffres). The Small Numerals were considered too difficult to read due to their size and the fact that they quickly became fouled.
Most post offices used their large numerals from 1 January 1863, but many had been using them since December 1862. After almost 13 years of service, the "Gros Chiffres" ceased to be used at the end of March 1876. Instruction no. 193 in monthly bulletin no. 84 of March 1876, announcing this end, was received on different dates from one office to another. As a result, the end date of the large numerals may be different for each office. In general, use is considered late after 28 March and very late after 1 April 1876.
On the other hand, from 1871 and the annexation by Prussia of part of the eastern departments, the numbers of the annexed offices were no longer used. These large numerals were reassigned to offices created from 1873. They were named by collectors as "replacements of Alsace-Lorraine".
At the same time as the 2nd nomenclature was created in 1862, the Administration decided that each office should send its "Petits Chiffres" to the office whose new order number corresponded (Monthly Bulletin No. 88, December 1862).
An exchange list and a procedure were to be put in place in the days that followed. The monthly bulletin even stated that "the old cancellation stamp which has been exchanged (...) will be used in the event that the one to be supplied shortly by the equipment office is taken out of service". In practice, many post offices never exchanged their small numerals, no doubt through negligence.
Finally, it is also likely that the equipment office sent its residual inventory of Petits Chiffres to post offices in accordance with the new nomenclature.