Turning the Tassel in 2020: Graduation Then and Now


Turning the Tassel in 2020: Graduation Then and Now

Happy graduation season, readers! We’ve talked about graduating on our blog before, but we thought it might be time to revisit this topic.

This year, commencement ceremonies across the state of Ohio might look a bit different, but there are still a few traditions we can observe from a safe distance. There are also new traditions to be formed, and we are certain that Ohioans will get creative in their social distanced celebrations.

We wanted to share with you a few of the historic traditions surrounding graduation, while celebrating the innovative young Ohioans who are making their own traditions this year.

In fact, if you have a story about what graduation looks like for you in 2020, we want to hear from you! Right now, our team is documenting how Ohioans are experiencing today’s historic pandemic. As Ohio’s public history organization, the stories you share with us will help us understand the day-to-day impacts of COVID-19. If you have images, videos, objects or a personal story to share, click below to learn how you can contribute.

Documenting the COVID-19 Pandemic


Seniors at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, celebrate their 2020 graduation by throwing toilet paper, instead of their caps. Photo courtesy of BSH Photo.

The predecessor of the modern American commencement ceremony began in the 12th and 13th centuries as universities began to take form in Europe. One of the major traditions that we have retained from these early periods is the unique clothing we wear when we receive a diploma.

Early education was often centered on the church and training young priests. It is very likely that the robes and hoods worn by early academics were inspired by similar clothing worn by clergy. Hoods were adopted to keep shorn clerics’ heads covered and thick robes were worn to stay warm in cold classrooms throughout the winter.

This document from our collections shows that in 1944, Ohio State students could rent a Bachelors graduation gown from Long’s Bookstore for $1.00.

In many American universities, the gowns that we are used to seeing at commencement exercises were worn every day until the mid-1800s. It was a mark of honor for a student to be allowed to wear this academic garb that set him apart from the local residents of the town where he was attending classes (most universities only admitted men in the years before the academic gowns had been parted with).

The earliest days of academic garb were a free-for-all, with universities making their own decisions about color and style. As early as 1321, the Portuguese University of Coimbra set guidelines for academic garb, and by the early 1500s Oxford and Cambridge followed suit. The United States adopted a more universal style in the late 1800s, which has since been revisited by a national committee in 1932, 1959, and 1986.

Group portrait of the graduating members of the Boys Agricultural Club and Girls Garden Club at Patterson High School in Clark County, Ohio, 1903.

Today the gown you wear to graduation largely depends on the degree you are receiving. Most universities no longer provide hoods for bachelor’s degrees, but generally those receiving a doctoral degree will be “hooded,” meaning upon receiving their diploma the hood will be formally placed upon them by a representative of the university or a trusted advisor. (If you don’t know how to put your hood on before graduation, there’s a YouTube video for that.) Each university and degree will typically be assigned a color that is denoted on the hood.

The final piece of the graduation garb is the cap on top, with the tassel on the right. While widely recognized today, the turning of the tassel is not technically a written tradition. It is likely that the tassel tradition began as a way to symbolize the receipt of a diploma for high school students who do not receive a hood.

Once graduates figure out how to put on their hoods, and which side to place their tassel on, it’s time to enter the commencement ceremony, to the notes of Pomp and Circumstance. If you grew up in the United States, you will almost certainly recognize this song. Although written by a British composer, the song has been uniquely adopted by Americans as “the graduation song.”

Students enter a Kindergarten graduation ceremony at Rick’s Child Guidance Center in Columbus, Ohio, circa 1950s-60s.

In the early 1900s, not long after he had composed Pomp and Circumstance, Edward Elgar was granted an honorary degree by Yale University. As he left the stage, the song was played in his honor. The song, filled with uplifting and stately tones befitting of a momentous event, caught on and other universities began to play Pomp and Circumstance as their students entered commencement ceremonies. Soon everyone began to associate Pomp and Circumstance with the experience of commencement- and the rest is history.

Next comes the commencement speaker. Today college seniors anxiously await the day they will hear the name of their speaker, and many Americans will take the time to read or listen to speeches at universities they never even attended. However, this is a very new tradition.

In the earliest commencement ceremonies, the speakers for the day were typically the students. Universities were meant to teach students to be successful orators (and to speak fluent Latin), so commencement was a time to prove their new found skills. Eventually universities did begin including other speakers, but generally these orators were academics or politicians meant to inspire students with tales of their careers. There was no “star quality” to a commencement address like we know it today.

Graduates at St. Nicholas School in Zanesville, Ohio, 1940.

Around the mid-1900s, as the purpose of a university education began to change, the names of commencement speakers around the nation became more diverse. Students were now seeking careers in fields outside academia, and they wanted to hear from people who had been successful in doing so. As universities continued to outdo each other, the fame of the typical speaker grew, leading to the culture of commencement that we know today.

While our commencement ceremonies have largely remained uniform over time, traditions have changed. For instance, high school seniors in the early 1900s regularly participated in a “senior play,” but this tradtion is rare today. Traditions can also vary by school. For instance, at The Ohio State University, graduates leave the stadium to the sound of the Victory Bell, which only rings after a victory in the stadium, be it athletic or, in the case of graduation, academic.

What graduation traditions do you remember? Let us know in the comments! And if you starting a new tradition in 2020 be sure to click here to learn how you can contribute to our COVID-19 collection.

Interested in learning more? Here are a few of the sources consulted for this blog post:
Smithsonian Magazine- Why Does Every American Graduation Play Pomp and Circumstance?
Colorado State University- History of Academic Regalia
Georgia Tech-Breaking Down the Cap and Gown
Time Magazine- The Long History Behind Your Favorite Celebrity Commencement Speech
Columbia University- Commencement History and Regalia


Posted May 15, 2020

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