Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

History by degrees

7 min read

In all shapes and sizes, diplomas of the 17th and 18th centuries provide glimpses of their eras

Early in the afternoon of Sept. 23, 1642 — the first Commencement at Harvard College — all nine graduates lined up in front of President Henry Dunster. He conferred degrees on the group in order of their parents’ prominence, which made Benjamin Woodbridge Harvard’s first graduate. After delivering an address in Latin, Dunster handed each new scholar “a Booke of Arts,” wrote one witness. But after the ceremony, Harvard took each book back.

It was not until 1813 that Harvard College graduates received something at Commencement they could keep: a uniformly sized, textually common diploma in Latin. (Medical diplomas were first given out in 1817, and law diplomas in 1827.) Before the era of printed diplomas, any graduate who needed a document attesting to a Harvard degree (usually for travel overseas) hired a local calligrapher to pen an inscription on parchment. Then he — always “he” in those days — paid the Harvard president to sign it. When it came to 17th- and 18th-century diplomas, you “rolled your own,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

Because of this practice, surviving Harvard diplomas from that time come in all shapes and sizes. They have only one thing in common: Latin text, including names and signatures. The first Harvard graduate to have a diploma made was James Ward, a minister’s son who earned his A.B. degree in 1645, despite an earlier public whipping by Dunster for burgling a local residence. He moved to England, and used his Harvard degree to gain admittance to Oxford. The earliest known diploma in the Harvard collections is that of George Alcock, who received his A.B. in 1673. Dated 1676, it is Puritan-plain and conspicuously small, about 10 inches by 6. Many archived examples, however, are elaborately inscribed, fitted with ribbons and seals, and ostentatiously large. For his 1769 A.B., Thomas Kast ordered up a flashy sheepskin 24 inches wide.

None of the 29 Harvard diplomas from those early centuries — despite bursts of fanciful filigree — could be called fine art. Even strictly as documents, they have limited utility for historians since they merely confirm identities and dates of graduation, which were already recorded in the Triennial Catalogs of that era. (The first catalog was printed in 1674 on the press at the Indian College — as a broadside. Not until 1776 was Harvard’s list of graduates large enough to merit a pamphlet.)

But there is undeniable magic to the originals, penned on paper or skin and anchored by the ornate signatures of people from Harvard’s resonant far past. Urian Oakes, Harvard’s fourth president, signed Alcock’s diploma. He steered the College through the bloody years of King Philip’s War. Increase Mather, Harvard’s last resolutely Puritan president, signed his son Samuel’s 1701 master of arts diploma. In 1839, legendary law professor Joseph Story, who taught at Harvard while a justice of the Supreme Court, signed the diploma of LL.B. graduate Henry Mason. So did Harvard President Josiah Quincy III, who had a sound head for business and an iron fist for student discipline.

Vintage diplomas and other Commencement documents may also reflect dramatic historical realities. The Triennial Catalog for 1682, which lists 1665 College graduate Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck as an “Indus,” also reveals the demographic fragility of 17th-century Harvard. There are no graduates listed for 1644, 1648, and 1672, and only one each in 1652 and 1654. (The 17th century produced only 439 graduates, about one-quarter the number of the Class of 2014; of those 17th-century graduates, 132 — 30 percent — died before the onset of the next century.) Soon came the era of “general degree diplomas,” published in lieu of Commencements cancelled because of war, disease, or economic depression. The earliest general diploma at the Harvard University Archives is for 1752, the year of a smallpox outbreak in Boston.

Other diplomas in the Harvard archives signal other kinds of drama, like the one for Gertrude McDonald, whose A.B. was granted in 1894, the first year of the new Radcliffe College. The Schlesinger Library has in its vaults three proofs that women belonged at Harvard all along: the diplomas given to Ruth Lansing — for a bachelor’s degree in 1908, a master’s in 1909, and a Ph.D. in 1914. “It’s not just a piece of paper with a name,” said Schlesinger research librarian Sarah M. Hutcheon of each old diploma. “There’s a story behind it.”

— Corydon Ireland

This diploma for George Alcock, A.B. 1673, is the earliest known example in the Harvard University Archives. It is dated April 19, 1676.
Puritan minister Increase Mather, Harvard’s sixth president, signed this 1701 Master of Arts diploma for his son Samuel Mather.
This is an 1840 replica of the honorary LL.D. bestowed by Harvard on George Washington — “Georgium Washington” — on April 18, 1776.
An 1883 certificate from the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women attesting that Grace Rebecca Canfield had completed coursework equivalent to a bachelor of arts degree at the school better known as the “Harvard Annex.”
Grace Rebecca Canfield’s subsequent A.B. degree from Radcliffe College in 1894, its first year.
The “general degree diploma” of 1752, the earliest of its type preserved in Harvard collections. Such diplomas, listing all graduates, were printed in years when Commencement was interrupted by war, disease, or economic depression. In 1752, Boston suffered an outbreak of smallpox.
Harvard’s 1682 Triennial Catalog, an early example of a traditional list of all graduates, living and dead, printed as a broadside starting in 1674 and posted at every Commencement. By 1776, the list of graduates was long enough to merit a pamphlet. A five-year publication interval was adopted in 1875. The last number of the “Quinquennial Catalog” appeared in 1930.
The 1855 diploma of William Gouverneur Morris, who earned an LL.B. degree from Harvard Law School. It was signed by Harvard President James Walker, under whose regime (1853-1860) Harvard constructed its first sciences building, offered its first music course, and hired its first black staffer, boxing instructor A. Molyneaux Hewlett.
Harvard College’s general degree diploma dated Oct. 3, 1775, signed by President Samuel Locke. At the time, the College was exiled to Concord, Mass., while Harvard was an armed camp housing the Continental Army.
The earliest Harvard Law School diploma in the University’s collections, from 1839. It memorializes an LL.B. degree earned by Henry Mason.
The remains of the 1849 A.B. diploma of Edward Lorenzo Holmes. Tucked into a safe, it survived the fire of 1871 — although “it is clearly evident,” wrote heir and donor Randolph W. Holmes in 1929, “that the ‘sheep skin’ has turned to a substance analogous to glue.”
A phony medical diploma, dated 1865, designed by the Medical Faculty Society (“Med. Fac.”), a covert group founded in 1818 to perpetrate elaborate pranks. For generations Med. Fac. specialized in fractured Latin. The diploma is “signed” by Harvard President H.B. Parker (fictitious) and granted to Joseph Wheeler Reed (an actual member of the Class of 1867).
Radcliffe College graduate Ruth Lansing’s 1914 diploma, memorializing her Ph.D. in Romance philology.
The elaborate and large diploma commissioned by Thomas Kast on the occasion of his 1769 graduation from Harvard College.
The Latin-text LL.B. diploma of Clarence Clyde Ferguson Jr., who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1951 and taught there from 1976 until his death in 1983. He was a decorated veteran of World War II, an ambassador, a professor, and an author.
An 1864 honorary Master of Arts degree diploma for Marshall Train Bigelow, signed by Harvard President Thomas Hill. This represents an era — 1860 to 1902 — characterized by extra-large Harvard diplomas.
A detail from the 1951 LL.B. diploma of Clarence Clyde Ferguson Jr., which shows the bold, clear signature of James Bryant Conant, Class of 1914. His regime (1933-1953) marked the beginning of the University Professor program, need-blind admissions, the predecessor of the Harvard Kennedy School, the Graduate School of Design, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, women in Harvard classrooms, and general education courses.
The 1827 A.B. diploma for Cornelius Conway Felton, a classics scholar who was president of Harvard from 1860 (when he presided over the first graduating class of more than 100 students) until his death in 1862.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — Class of 1861 graduate, Union Army officer, and future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — received his LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1866. His diploma, pictured, is part of Harvard’s collections.
A sample Harvard bachelor’s degree diploma from 1989. It was in 1963 that graduates of Radcliffe College first received diplomas jointly with graduates of Harvard College.