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Graduation Diploma History

Have you ever really given thought to that piece of paper that states you are officially a graduate? Diplomas didn’t always have that prestigious decorated look they do now and have a long history. The word “diploma” for graduations originated sometime in the mid 17th century, meaning “double folded paper” in Greek Latin. By definition, a diploma is a document given by an educational institution certifying that the person completed a course of study. Unlike the cap and gown, awarding a diploma to a graduate began in the United States.

Graduation Diploma History

The Start of a Tradition

The tradition of giving a graduate a diploma originated at Harvard College. The first commencement to ever take place at Harvard was on September 23rd, 1642. The few graduates, specifically nine, were handed “a Book of Arts” to represent their achievement. After the ceremony, the school took back each book. It wasn’t until 1813 that Harvard College graduates received a uniformly sized, textually common diploma they could keep.

Graduation Diploma History

The Original Materials

Original diplomas were made out of thin sheepskin since papermaking was difficult in earlier centuries. These documents were fully handwritten in Latin with actual signatures from the school’s president and other school officials. Older diplomas before the 1800s were all different shapes and sizes. Before the time of printed diplomas, if a graduate needed proof of having a Harvard degree (typically for traveling overseas), it was not easy.

First, they would need to hire a calligrapher to write up the necessary Latin inscription on parchment (animal skin) paper. The graduate would then need to pay the Harvard president for his signature. The first known graduate to have a diploma made was James Ward who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1645. There have been 29 diplomas recovered from these earlier centuries and despite their varied appearance, had one thing in common: Latin text.

Graduation Diploma History

A First in History

Another notable piece of history is the first woman to receive a diploma was in 1840 and her name was Catherine Elizabeth Brewer Benson from Wesleyan College (formally known as Georgia Female College). However, she wasn’t the only one, there were eleven other women in her graduating class. Since she had the alphabetical advantage, she technically was the first woman to be handed a diploma. Sadly for the others, Benson’s name is the one recognized for this achievement. She may have been the first woman to get a diploma but not the first to get a degree. Mississippi College is noted as the first university to grant a degree to a woman, Alice Robinson, and Catherine Hall in December of 1831.

Graduation Diploma History

Roll Em Up!

Diplomas were rolled up and tied with a ribbon up until this last century. Why may you ask? You can roll and unroll sheepskin countless times without it breaking though they’re not easy to frame. Since traveling scholars used to haul it around with them as proof of their education, parchment diplomas proved to be quite resilient. Many colleges still practice the tradition of handing out rolled up “symbolic” diplomas at graduation ceremonies. If the school does provide a rolled up document, it is probably just a representation of completing that level of education.

Typically, your actual diploma will be provided with a leatherette binder or diploma cover to protect the document. Others may frame their diploma to put out for display. These days, graduates will likely protect or store their diplomas instead of traveling with them. For this reason, strong parchment isn’t necessary anymore. Diplomas are now usually made with high-quality paper or “synthetic parchment” (paper bathed in oil) to give that old-fashioned sheepskin appearance.

Graduation Diploma History

Where to Buy Diplomas

Our certificates may not be made from animal skin, but GraduationSource can provide you with authentic, high-quality diplomas that will proudly showcase your students’ achievement.

Lescapsgown focuses on creating the perfect graduation ceremony for you.

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