Cap Night: A historic tradition

27 04 2012

Well, it is almost that time of year again…

…time to say goodbye and send off another graduating class from Michigan State. This past week was deemed “Senior Week” and offered various activities for seniors to participate in as they prepare for their graduation ceremonies next weekend. Most of these activities could now be considered “traditions” of MSU, if you will — things such as climbing up into the bells of Beaumont, taking a picture with Sparty, or signing the rock are all part of celebrating “Senior Week”.

MSU has had a long history of following traditions associated with the time of graduation and the end of the school year [for more information on graduation traditions click here]. The end of the school year marks a transition point for many students; freshmen are no longer the ones at the bottom of the food chain and the seniors say goodbye to MSU to begin another journey. In the early 20th century, during the beginnings of MSU, the students held an important event marking this tradition. “Cap Night” as it was called was the closing point for the end of the school year.

In the early days of MSU, all freshmen and preps were required to wear “beanies” or freshmen caps. This would denote their status as the youngest on campus and often times even be the cause of some bullying, such as being pushed in the Red Cedar or being harassed on their walks to class. At the close of the end of the year term, the old night shirt parade would take place. In 1908, this tradition was modified to include a ceremonial fire in “Sleepy Hollow”, the depression between the music building and Beaumont Tower. Into this fire, on each “Cap Night” freshmen and preps threw their caps in this fire symbolizing the end of their year as the youngest at school. It is often times very hard now-a-days to come across one of these beanies for most of them were all burned! – however, here at the archives, we are preservers of history and actually do have one!

In addition to freshmen tossing their beanies into the fire, the seniors, beginning in 1910, would show up in their cap-and-gown and would toss their textbooks or old catalogs (if they sold their textbooks) into the fire. MSU Historian Madison Kuhn notes, “Three of the five classes thus discarded their badges of slavery”. This ceremonial “Cap Night” was a fun tradition marking the end of a long school year and a transition into the next chapter of life.

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