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 graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and four honorary degrees were conferred.
The 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.
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 College, 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 14th Street and Irving Place.
Since 1898, Commencement has been held on the Morningside Campus—at first in the University gymnasium, and since 1926 outdoors on Low Plaza. The Commencement ceremony has occurred on a yearly basis since the colonial period and has become a distinct part of the fabric of New York City's rich history. This year marks the University's 260th academic year.
The academic costume originated in the Middle Ages when a warm gown and hood were practical garb for scholars studying in unheated buildings. The distinctive gown set the student apart from his fellow citizens, hence the perennial controversy between "town and gown." Until after the American Civil War, Columbia students wore caps and gowns daily while in residence at the College.
In 1894, an American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia for the purpose of standardizing the style and color for robes and hoods. It was decided that all robes would be black; bachelors' gowns to be made of worsted wool with pointed sleeves; masters' gowns of silk with long closed sleeves; doctoral gowns faced with black velvet with three bars across the sleeves. Hoods were made of the same materials as the gowns, the length varying with the degree. Only the lining of the hood indicated the university--for Columbia, light blue with a white chevron. The border color indicated the academic discipline in which the degree was earned. In the late twentieth century, universities in America began to adopt more colorful robes. The Columbia gown is now slate blue.
The 18th-century mace carried in the Columbia ceremonies was given to the University by the late Judge John Munro Woolsey, LL.B. '01, LL.D. '29. It is of Sheffield plate, topped with a king's crown over a design of acanthus leaves. 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.
For information or to view webcasts of past University Commencement ceremonies, visit the Commencement Archives.