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Commencement - Historical Information

When was the first Commencement at Johns Hopkins?
Why did graduates start wearing regalia?
What is the importance of the mace and chain?

The first Commencement at Johns Hopkins

The Johns Hopkins University conferred its first degrees in 1878, two years after our founding (four PhDs). The first undergraduate degrees were conferred in 1879 (three BAs). However, until 1884, there were no Commencement exercises, and it was not until 1886 that diplomas were awarded to graduates. According to John C. French, inA History of the University Founded by Johns Hopkins, the first diplomas were “phrased quite simply in English, and bearing the official seal.”

The first printed Commencement programs, preserved in the University Archives, were simple folded sheets of paper. As late as the 1950s, programs were black ink on white paper, with no embellishments except the University Seal. In 1958, the first color cover appeared on a Commencement program.

While the first four Commencement ceremonies (1884-1887) were held on Hopkins’ original campus (in the vicinity of Howard and Monument streets), the event quickly grew too large. So, for most years from 1888 through 1943, Commencement ceremonies were held off-campus, in area churches, the Academy of Music, and the Lyric Theater.

In 1944, due to the ongoing world war, Commencement was held on July 3, but this marks the first time that Commencement took place on the Homewood Campus, in front of Gilman Hall, using the steps and terrace as a stage. For many years, this event took place open to the elements, but in the 1970s, the University began erecting a tent, covering most of the quad, and this practice continued through 2000.

Due to a major landscaping project that began in summer 2000, a tent was no longer feasible, due to irrigation pipes. It was decided to move Commencement to Homewood Field in 2001. Many graduates had fond memories of attending Commencement among the academic buildings, but the seating at Homewood Field accommodated more people and gave a better field of view to those watching their friends and family graduate.

In 2016, after years of contending with unpredictable weather, Commencement moved to Baltimore's Royla Farms Arena. The indoor venue provides a comfortable, climate-controlled setting that can hold as many guests as our graduates wish to invite.


What’s with the mortarboard hats?
History has left us with two explanations behind the odd, yet familiar, flat-top hats we see at Commencement. The first tells of a Roman law under which freed slaves were designated by wearing a cap as a sign of his independence. The second cites a Greek myth of a teacher who placed mortarboards atop his students’ heads because ‘their destiny is to build. Some will build cities, some will build lives, and perhaps one of them will build an empire. But all will be builders with the same foundation of knowledge.” Both myths associate this hat with new beginnings, exciting opportunities, and freedom from a world of term papers and long nights in the quiet levels of Milton S. Eisenhower library.

Tassels: On the left, or the right?
Tassels are worn on the right side before candidates receive their degrees and moved to the left afterward.

The traditional of wearing tassels derives from the days when students were responsible for mending their everyday hoods daily with the color of thread representing their faculties. Although the tradition of the needle and thread has been lost, the idea of a color symbolizing one’s faculty has remained. Some colors you may see in our ceremony include:

   Medicine: Green                                                         Education: Light blue
   Music: Pink                                                                  Business: Drab
   Philosophy: Dark Blue                                              Science: Golden Yellow
   Nursing: Apricot                                                          Arts, Letters, Humanities: White
   Engineering: Orange                                                 Economics: Copper
   Public Health: Salmon Pink                                     Public Administration: Peacock Blue

Getting in Your Gowns
Since 12th century, the Commencement gowns were worn every day, complete with adornments based on wealth and rank (silk, velvet, furs) until 1600. The three main degree types: Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.’s determine the design as follows:

  • Modern bachelor’s gowns are traditionally black, fall above the ankle, and have long, straight-bottomed sleeves
  • Master’s gowns are known for their distinctive sleeves—the backside of which dangles to the wearer’s knees.
  • Ph.D. gowns have distinctive bell-shaped sleeves. The gown has a front facing of velvet with three bars of velvet across the sleeves.

Hold onto your hoods
Although their original purpose, to keep monks’ heads warm in the 15th century, has since become obsolete, the hoods have nevertheless remained a nostalgic accoutrement to the Commencement ensemble. The hood lengths, like the gowns, vary based on degree level: Bachelor’s, 3 feet; Master’s, 3½ feet; Ph.D.’s, 4 feet. Luckily, these hoods are no longer made of animal fur as they once were—imagine that during a Baltimore summer!

And remember just how lucky you are…In the colonial period, faculties at some American colleges had to wear these gowns and caps to class each day!

What is the importance of the mace and chain? 

The Chain - University President Ronald J. Daniels is wearing the presidential insignia signifying the authority vested in the president by the board of trustees. It is a chain of sterling silver links worn around the neck. Portraits of The Johns Hopkins University presidents are engraved on the faces of the links. On the reverse, the names and dates of office of each president are engraved. Blank links for future use are included. The university seal completes the design.

At Hopkins’ 1966 Commencement ceremony, Milton S. Eisenhower wore the Presidential Insignia for the first time.  Designed by Baltimore silversmith Henry Powell Hopkins, Jr., the insignia consists of a sterling silver chain and features an engraved rendition of the University Seal.  On the chain itself, each link contains engraved portraits of all Johns Hopkins presidents from Daniel Coit Gilman to the present.  The Presidential Insignia is a symbol of the authority vested in the president by the Board of Trustees.

The Mace - The university mace, carried by the chief marshal, was first used at the 1954 Commemoration Day Ceremony. Eight symbols are handwrought in sterling silver on an ebony staff representing our cultural development from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the modern era.

In general, they are carried by a marshal, a provost or a president and symbolize the authority vested in the president and officers by the board of trustees. The conferring of degrees on students is an integral part of commencement and occurs by lawful authority of the  university. The earliest maces were used as weapons in combat in medieval times (indeed, some had spiked heads).  Later they were borne by sergeants-at-arms and royal bodyguards to protect kings. They were used in the Roman Empire to signify the authority of the state. Today a mace is used for the same purpose in the U.S. House of Representatives and the British House of Commons.

The mace consists of an ebony shaft, 40 inches long, with a silver base, two silver bands, evenly spaced on the shaft, and a large pear shaped silver ball at the top of the shaft.  On top of the ball is an acorn and an oak leaf signifying strength. There are symbols on the base and rings which depict the role of arts and sciences in cultural development from ancient times to the modern era.  Depicted on the ball at the top are the university seal on one side and the torch of learning on the other.

At the urging of historian Douglas Southall Freeman, a 1906 Hopkins alumnus, Hopkins commissioned Baltimore silversmith Henry Powell Hopkins, Jr., to create a mace. It took about 18 months from design to working drawings to completion in late 1953. The Johns Hopkins University mace was the first of several academic maces made by Mr. Hopkins, whose work can also be found at Loyola University in Baltimore, Washington College, and the University of Pennsylvania.  Mr. Hopkins, now 93, continues to visit his Mt. Vernon studio almost daily. His current project is polishing opals. His son, Henry Hopkins III, continues his father’s silversmith business.

Seventy-eight years after its founding, Johns Hopkins University finally had a ceremonial mace.
From guest blogger Ross Jones, Vice President and Secretary Emeritus, Johns Hopkins University


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