Graduation, Northwestern Style: The early Years

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

A tip of the Oxford cap – or mortar board – to Northwestern’s newest graduates, the Class of 2010. As you march through the ceremonies, photo ops, and other events of your commencement experience, this description of NU's early graduations will give you material for one final compare and contrast opportunity (you will not be graded!).


While Northwestern was founded 159 years ago , in May, 1850, it wasn't until 1855 that the first students enrolled-- a class of ten. Another four years passed before that group, now numbering only five members, received degrees as the University’s first graduating class.


The central features of today’s commencement – a procession, music, public address, awarding of degrees, and a benediction – were in place at Northwestern from the very first ceremony in 1859. One significant difference was that, during the early years, all degree recipients demonstrated their erudition and public speaking abilities in formal orations delivered at the commencement ceremony. Thomas E. Annis (WCAS 1859) of Evanston gave the very first such oration in Northwestern history, on “The Life of the Student and His Lesson.” Let’s hope that the lesson Annis learned was to keep his address short --after all, four more speeches were to follow his. Punctuating the commencement orations were interludes of music and prayer, followed by the conferral of degrees and a closing benediction. But the event wasn't entirely somber: a brass band led the graduates, University trustees and faculty, and visitors during the short procession from the single campus building at Davis and Hinman to the site of the ceremony, Evanston’s Methodist Church.
As long as the school remained relatively small, commencement-related activities were limited. The Civil War impacted commencement for a few years. Due in part to the number of Northwestern students engaged in military service, only two received their undergraduate degrees in 1863. Three Northwestern graduates were excused from presenting orations in 1864 as they were already in service. Northwestern’s first baccalaureate service dates from 1861. During the decades when the University’s Methodist connections were at their strongest, the baccalaureate took the form of a sermon delivered by a prominent clergyman. In the 1870s and 1880s, this sermon was frequently delivered by NU's president, usually an ordained minister himself. The sermon became the baccalaureate address during the tenure of Henry Wade Rogers, the first non-clergyman to enjoy the full powers of the University presidency.
By Rogers' time, other activities had been added to the baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies. As senior classes grew incrementally larger, there was not time for each student to speak at graduation. While public orations remained on the commencement program, Class Day, inaugurated in 1869, held prior to the actual commencement day, provided an alternative outlet for student speeches, admonitions, and prophecies. Northwestern students were well-acquainted with the activities adopted by their peers at other academic institutions. In emulation of their counterparts at eastern schools, NU seniors established a tradition of planting ivy – the botanical symbol of the collegiate experience – along the foundations of campus buildings. The first shoots were planted by University Hall in 1874, and the tradition continued at Northwestern at least until the late 1920s. Planting Ivy at Fisk, 1907<br />
Another public speaking opportunity, the Ivy Oration, became a standard feature of the planting ceremony. The long-forgotten "Pipe Oration" of the 1890s was another tradition borrowed from schools back east, where students would puff on a tobacco-filled “pipe of peace.” Perhaps in deference to the Methodists' anti-tobacco sentiments, NU seniors in 1890 – both male and female – filled their pipes with dried mullein leaves.
A few more details present in modern graduations were added in the late 19th century. The practice of awarding honorary degrees to distinguished guests of the University began in 1889. The familiar attire of Oxford cap and gown made its appearance in 1888 on the person of NU President Joseph Cummings. (In an earlier display of daring, Cummings delivered his 1882 commencement remarks in Latin. Unlike the ivy, this custom did not take root.) In 1891, seniors began wearing this academic costume to Class Day exercises, but it wasn't till 1895 that they attended the graduation ceremony in cap and gown. The graduates of the College of Liberal Arts (now WCAS) and the School of Law gathered for Northwestern’s first multi-school commencement in 1892, held in the Auditorium Building in Chicago, a venue more commodious and secular than Evanston's Methodist Church. Also in 1892, Northwestern completely eliminated the tradition of commencement orations given by graduating students. Henceforth, commencement would feature a personality or orator of national rank (see the Commencement Speakers list). As the Chicago Tribune noted in June, 1892, “…no one doubted, after the success of the evening’s program, the change was for the better."
Commencement, 1932