Columbia University Archives

Commencement Collection, 1758-

Summary Information


The Commencement Collection contains primarily printed material, such as programs, tickets, and pamphlets concerning the Columbia University graduation ceremonies.

At a Glance

Call No.: UA#0126
Bib ID 6386066 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Columbia University. Archives
Title Commencement Collection, 1758-
Physical Description 22.54 linear feet (41 document boxes 1 CD/DVD box and 42 bound volumes)
Language(s) English .

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located on-site.



The collection is arranged in three series.



The Commencement Collection is composed of documents related to the graduation ceremonies held at Columbia University from its inception to the present day. The bulk of the records are programs from the ceremonies themselves. Other printed material such as flyers, tickets, press releases, newspaper clippings, and pamphlets are also held in this collection. There is a small amount of documents that are more general in nature. These include descriptions of proper academic dress, lists of valedictorians, speeches given at the ceremony, and information about the diplomas. This is an artificial collection created by the University Archives staff.

  • Series I: Commencement, 1758-present

    This series contains files of information pertaining to commencement ceremonies of a particular year. Files can contain newspaper accounts of the events, programs, planning documents, tickets, invitations, and press releases. This series is updated annually.

  • Series II: Subjects, 1758-2007

    This series contains documents that are more general in nature and are not necessarily associated with a particular graduation year. Materials include descriptions of proper academic dress, lists of valedictorians, speeches given at the ceremony, and information about the diplomas

  • Series III: Annual Commencement scrapbooks, 1758-1937

    This series contains a number of scrapbooks put together by the Columbiana curators. During the tenure of Robert Arrowsmith CC 1882 as Columbiana curator (1917-1927), he envisioned a collection of scrapbooks documenting different aspects of Columbia: athletics, literary societies, alumni associations, schools, etc. One series of scrapbooks, which was continued by Arrowsmith's successor, Milton Halsey Thomas, collected materials related to the Annual Commencement ceremony. In these scrapbooks, there are Photostat copies and transcriptions of newspaper accounts, programs, tickets, published addresses, invitations and some photographs. The scrapbooks include materials related to other Commencement events (Class Day, Baccalaureate Service, Alumni Luncheon, Campus Night, etc.) and cover the various schools at Columbia (Engineering, Journalism, Barnard, etc.). At the 1811 Commencement ceremony, the refusal of a diploma to one of the graduates led to a riot. There is a supplemental 1811 volume with the transcription of the newspaper accounts about the incident, the legal procedures and the subsequent sentencing of those involved.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located on-site.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the University Archivist/Curator of Manuscripts, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Commencement Collection; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


Additions added annually

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

This collection was processed by the University Archives staff.

Finding aid written by Lea Osborne, January 2008.

Revision Description

2009-10-29 File created.

2010-04-06 xml instance created by Lea Osborne.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Academic costume Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Academic decorations of honor Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University -- History Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical / Historical

The first Commencement of King's College, as Columbia University was originally called, was held on June 21, 1758, in St. George's Chapel on Beekman Street in lower Manhattan. Seven men were graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and four honorary degrees were conferred. According to an observation in the New York Mercury on June 26, 1758, in this first ceremony there was an address given on the "Advantages of a liberal Education" and a Mr. Treadwell demonstrated the "Revolution of the Earth round the Sun" using both astronomical observations and the Theory of Gravity. Apparently he was successful in defending his thesis.

These exercises were conducted almost entirely in Latin during the King's College period, and for yet another century classical orations formed a regular part of the program. These orations, usually in English, are now presented at the Columbia College Class Day.

The academic costumes worn during the ceremony can be traced back to medieval times, perhaps as early as the twelfth century. The hood and gown served a practical purpose for students working in unheated buildings. It appears that the King's College students were the first Americans to wear the costume while in residence.

During the pre-Revolutionary period, the Commencement procession passed through the city streets from the College building on Park Place to Trinity Church. When King's College became Columbia, in 1784, Commencement was held in various churches and halls throughout New York City. After the College moved to 49th Street and Madison Avenue in 1857, Commencement usually took place at the Academy of Music at Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. Since 1898 Commencement has been held on the Campus at Morningside, at first in the University gymnasium, and since 1926 outdoors on Low Plaza.

The eighteenth-century mace used in the ceremony also hearkens back to medieval times when the mace was used as a weapon. At that time it consisted of a stout club ending in a metal ball, usually spiked. The Columbia University mace was donated by Judge John Munro Woolsey, LL.B. '01, LL.D. '29. Historically, the mace was a symbol of authority displayed in British courts; Columbia's mace represents the authority vested in the University president to confer degrees on students and honorands and is carried in every commencement ceremony.