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MSU-B nursing school brings back capping ceremonies
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff Practical Nursing Program instructor Shelly Mendenhall adjusts a cap on graduating student Lisa Ryan at the MSU-B College of Technology. Nursing students have revived the tradition of capping and pinning during the graduation ceremony. Additional graduates in the background are, from left top, Jennifer Powers, Chere Schaeffer McFarland, Paula Hodges and Ilene Fryer. Bottom from left, Mary Herr and Ruth Denny.

Stories By JEREMY RUSSELL Of The Gazette Staff

Graduating nurses at the Montana State University-Billings College of Technology are reviving the tradition of "capping."

As well as diplomas and pins, the nurses will receive a nurse's cap at the graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. today in the college.

Although the pinning ceremony has remained a part of the nursing school's convocation, the capping ceremony was eliminated in 1980.

Capping was once one of the most important milestones of the profession, along with lamp lighting, pinning and the Nightingale pledge, but fell into disfavor in recent decades. Caps were dropped from nurses' uniforms in the 1980s for a variety of reasons, including that they were determined to be unhygienic.

The caps "became an infection-control issue (in hospitals), but it's still a big symbol of a big accomplishment," said MSU-B nursing instructor Michelle Mendenhall.

She was capped as part of her graduation from the MSU College of Nursing in 1979.

"We wore plain caps until we graduated, and then we got an MSU stripe," she said.

This year's crop of graduates will be adding that same traditional blue stripe.

The idea to revive the capping ceremony came from students Lisa Ryan and Jennifer Powers.

Ryan is a self-described "hat fanatic." When she and Powers saw the caps represented in photographs of nurses from earlier eras, they were inspired to revive the tradition.

Ryan took their idea to St. John's Lutheran Ministries, the retirement home where she plans to continue working as a licensed practical nurse. Her employers donated caps for all 13 of this year's graduates.

The students were equally excited.

"The caps represent nurses that went before us," Powers explained, adding that her great aunt's cap has stayed in the family.

"Personally, (the cap) just reminds me of support I've had from other nurses," she said.

Fellow graduate Chere Schaeffer recalled an early experience with a cap.

"When I was 3, the nurse who inspired me put one on my head," she said.

Although the students will not wear the caps as part of their future jobs, they agreed the hats symbolize what they've overcome in two years of study — the hard work and help they gave each other.

"I'm so proud of all my classmates," Ryan said.

She plans to put her cap in a shadow box to commemorate the occasion.

The students' efforts have also made an impression on the college faculty.

"I think that is so cool to reintroduce" the caps, said College of Technology Dean John Cech.

Despite a supportive administration, the students aren't sure if the ceremony will be continued. It will be a decision for future graduating classes to make.

"I hope they do. I think (capping) is a good thing to remember," Powers said.

Jeremy Russell can be reached at

More information

Today, nurses wear plain, simple, hygienic outfits called "scrubs," but nursing uniforms once were more complicated.

In the "Handbook On First Aid To The Injured With A Section On Nursing," published by Chicago by W. T. Keener & Co. in the late 1890s, nurses were required to wear "a neat cap."

After the turn of the century, such requirements were codified into a standard wardrobe. Simultaneously sophisticated and impractical, the caps were the hallmark of those traditional uniforms.

Each cap was unique to each school, in color if not design.

However, some nurses complained that caps got in the way of the work.

As part of assembling a future display on nursing uniforms "we've been having these sessions with retired and current nurses, and a lot of them really hate the caps," said Betsy White, secretary for the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing in Philadelphia. "They fell off of them onto the patients, they got dirty, and they got knocked off of them all the time."

Nevertheless, the caps remained in use until the 1980s, when it was decided once and for all that they weren't hygienic.

Nostalgia and respect for tradition have reawakened interest in the caps. Some nursing schools, most recently the one at Montana State University-Billings, have even revived the capping ceremonies.

Cap collections exist at Nurses' Alumni Organization of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, as well as the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.

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