Have you ever given thought to the piece of paper proving your status as a college graduate? Diplomas didn’t always have the prestigious, decorated look they do now. There’s a long history. The word “diploma” for graduation originated in the mid 17th century. Specifically, diploma means “double folded paper” in Greek Latin. By definition, educational institutions give a diploma certifying completion of a course of study. Unlike the cap and gown, awarding a diploma to a graduate began in the United States.
The tradition of awarding graduates a diploma originated at Harvard College. Harvard’s first commencement took place on September 23rd, 1642. The nine graduates received “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.
Original diplomas used thin sheepskin because paper-making was an arduous process a few centuries ago. The school’s president and other officials signed the diplomas which were written entirely in Latin. 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 a simple process.
First, schools needed 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. 29 diplomas still exist today. All of them have one thing in common: Latin text.
The first woman to receive a diploma was Catherine Elizabeth Brewer Benson from Wesleyan College (formally known as Georgia Female College) in 1840. However, she wasn’t the only one. There were eleven other women in her graduating class. With an alphabetical advantage, she was technically first. She may have been the first woman to get a diploma, but not the first to get a degree. Mississippi College granted the first degree to a woman (Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall in December 1831).
Diplomas were rolled up and tied with a ribbon up until this last century. You may ask why. You can roll and unroll sheepskin countless times without it breaking (though, they’re not easy to frame). Because traveling scholars used to haul it around with them as proof of their education, parchment diplomas have proven 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 often only 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 preserve or store their diplomas instead of traveling with them. For this reason, strong parchment is no longer necessary. Diplomas are now usually made with high-quality paper or “synthetic parchment” (paper bathed in oil) to give that old-fashioned, sheepskin appearance.
Our certificates may not be made from animal skin, but GraduationSource can provide you with authentic, high-quality diplomas that will proudly showcase student achievement.