High School Graduation, Circa 1900s

This month we will see the end of the yearly ritual of high school graduations. Seniors, happy to have finished that milestone in their lives, now look forward to college or jobs or whatever their plans are. For most teens, completing the 12th grade is expected, but one hundred plus years ago, it wasn’t the norm. Many young people went to only the 8th grade, as that much education would provide the skills necessary to get a basic job or help run the family farm. College expectations were rare, unless you were wealthy.

For those lucky few who were able to remain in school, achieving the 12th grade was something to celebrate! A quick look at the 1940 U.S. census bears this out. So many young adults—my grandparents included—answered the question about the level of schooling reached as 8th or 9th grade. I guess if you had no plans to go to college, and most didn’t due to low expectations, early marriage, or no money for a higher education, then why stay in school when you could be earning a salary and helping support your family? The times were vastly different.

Old class graduation photographs of serious young men dressed in dark suits and prim young women wearing delicate white cotton lawn dresses adorned with lace and pin tucks capture this very special moment in their lives. Unlike today, where even in kindergarten “graduation” ceremonies young scholars get to wear tiny versions of a cap and gown, the seniors of the early 1900s merely wore their Sunday best. Besides, the cost would have been too high to try and obtain these special graduation robes for remote places like Utah towns.

In the U.S. until just after the Great Depression, academic caps and gowns were still reserved for college and university graduation ceremonies. (While, in the U.K., all you Harry Potter fans are familiar with the academic robes worn by the Hogwarts’ students and professors.) Steeped in Medieval origins and traditions the mortarboard hat and different sleeve shapes all carried meaning and significance. In the 14th century academic robes with hoods were worn by students and professors alike to both set them apart as great thinkers, as well as for warmth in unheated university halls.

The square academic cap, also called a mortarboard—because of its resemblance in shape to the device utilized by masons to hold mortar—was reputed to have originated from a biretta worn by scholarly clergies, which was used to signify their superiority and intelligence. These hats became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries and were only worn by artists, humanists, students, and all those learned. They usually came in the color red signifying blood and life, hence, power more than life and death. Clearly, an education carried value!

The Syracuse Museum and Cultural Center has several of these lovely white cotton lawn graduation dresses on display. Next time you stop in to see what’s new, have a look at them and travel back in time to a graduation day long ago. 

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