What Happened to the Cap? The Dawn of the Cap

Part 1

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


May 03, 2011

In This Article

Rite of Passage: The Capping Ceremony

The capping ceremony was often the highlight of a student's experience, a "memorable and happy occasion for the students as they donned the cap and pledged to wear it with pride and dignity and in such a manner that it would always bring honor and distinction to their alma mater."[13] (Figure 20)

Figure 20. Capping ceremony in 1955 at Villanova University College of Nursing. Image courtesy of Villanova University Archives.

Early capping ceremonies (also called capping exercises) were held after 3, 6, 9, or 12 months of training (the "probationary period") when student nurses would receive their student's cap. In some training schools, the student cap was an all-white version of the hospital's graduate cap, whereas in others, the student and graduate caps were entirely different.

After students received their "probationer's" caps, the goal became the black band of the graduate nurse or, later, the registered nurse. Student nurses in some training programs would receive stripes as they reached educational milestones, the pinnacle of which was the black stripe. In some schools, different colored stripes (yellow, blue, green, pink, grey, or red) or small corner stripes were awarded to students as they completed various levels of their training. During capping ceremonies, which were often held in churches in front of family and friends, students were capped either by instructors (Figure 21) or an older student, usually a senior, known as one's "big sister."

Figure 21. Students at Johns Hopkins eagerly receive their probationer's caps in 1943. Library of Congress.

The "Florence Nightingale lamp" or a representative candle was often incorporated into the ceremony; hymns or school songs were sung, and the Nightingale pledge was often recited. Capping was tremendously meaningful, in keeping with the pride felt by the recipients of the hard-earned caps.

Being "capped" was of great significance to the young student nurse. It meant the achievement of a goal, a stepping stone to other goals. It meant recognition by other members of the health team and a readiness to assume additional responsibilities.[13]

Sometimes capping elevated the students to new positions in the hospital hierarchy by recognizing their knowledge, skill, and responsibilities. In 1903 at the Memorial Hospital Training School for Nurses in Richmond, Virginia, "after receiving their caps after the preliminary period, students were placed in charge of the hospital units." And the preliminary period lasted only 2 months! [13]

Capping ceremonies were also opportunities to deliver motivational speeches to students to remind them of what it meant to wear a cap and to discuss how their lives would change. At a capping ceremony in 1938, a speaker invoked patriotism with these inspirational words:

The nurse's cap means to you what the soldier's uniform means to him. When this cap is pinned on your head, it means you have become a member of one of the noblest professions and have subscribed to its ideals of service. You are no longer merely an individual responsible for her own acts, you are part of the nursing profession. [7]

Capping ceremonies were widely recognized as an event to celebrate (Figure 22).

Figure 22. Capping was so common that greeting cards to mark the occasion could be purchased, such as this card from 1966. Image courtesy of Mary Sullivan.


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