There used to be a time when you could tell a nurse’s history by her cap. Here at the Burns Library, the recently processed New England Deaconess School of Nursing collection (NEDH SON) can tell you a lot about the history of nursing, including the history of the school’s caps. In the days where nurses wore crisp white uniforms rather than the scrubs we’re so used to today, nursing schools had their own signature caps. No matter what hospital a nurse worked for during her career, she wore the cap that represented the school where she had trained. The caps, now a quaint relic of the history of women in medicine, had, at the time, a definite ceremonial mystique surrounding them. The NEDH SON collection has several examples of these hats and their evolution spanning the century that New England Deaconess Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess) taught young nurses.
Before establishing their first hospital in Boston’s South End, the New England Deaconesses were primarily known for their missionary work amongst the city’s poor, sick, and orphaned. Even then, these ladies were marked by their distinctive head wear. The Boston Globe reported in the 1880s, “one frequently meets upon the streets […] quiet, unassuming women garbed in black and wearing plain gray bonnets; the ‘grey bonnets’ as they are sometimes dubbed by the people who look eagerly for their coming are deaconesses of the Methodist Episcopal church.” When the hospital first opened in 1896, Deaconess Nurses wore a crinoline, “cupcake” style cap also worn by the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing. This cap was deemed too difficult to launder by the nurses, and in 1914 Blanche Le Gallee Burgess, the school’s seamstress and graduate of the class of 1913, came up with new, more practical design. Originally made of Irish linen, the new cap was more like what we commonly think of today as a traditional nurse’s cap. In 1968, the School of Nursing began to order ready-made nurses caps in the same style made of a perma-starch material.
In their probationary year, Deaconess Nurses did not wear caps. Instead, they wore black neckties, called “probie ties,” which were sometimes cut in two by students celebrating the end of their first year. Once in their freshman year, young nurses would receive their white caps in a capping ceremony. Capping exercises generally included an invocation, the singing of hymns, and an address by the superintendent of the School of Nursing before the advancing class was presented with this new symbol of their chosen profession. “Capping, being the first of many acts, offers a challenge. With your white cap you have been cast in the pageant of nursing,” wrote the student newsletter Harriscope in 1948. “Not all survive the ‘tryouts.’ You have – Congratulations!” Student nurses returned to capping ceremonies twice more during their time at NEDH. As juniors and seniors, they would receive the distinguishing Deaconess band of black velvet, as juniors adding a thin band and as seniors the full band they would wear as fully fledged nurses.
In the early twentieth century, one of the Deaconess Nurses copied an ode to the cap in fine calligraphy. “Be it crown or diadem,” the poem read, “it never can compare/with the little cap of white/that most of our nurses wear.” Among nurses themselves, the caps were far more than a marker of their station and authority in hospitals. They were a tangible symbol of their years of study and commitment to service. Indeed, in the NEDH SON collection, there are several interesting letters from nurses and nursing students expressing interest in nurses’ caps. In the 1960s, Ellen D. Howland, the Director of Nursing at NEDH, received letters from two nurses expressing interest in acquiring examples of the Deaconess cap for their rather extensive collections. One of the women had been collecting for nearly three years and had fifty-nine different school caps.
We may only have fifteen caps, but the other artifacts in our collection, including a full nurses uniform and the famous “probie tie,” will certainly be of use to anyone interested in the history of nursing education in the Boston Area. Please contact the Burns Library for more information either by phone at 617-552-4861 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Alexandra Bisio, Archives Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library
Brauer, Carl M. New England Deaconess Hospital: A Century of Caring. Boston, MA: Deaconess Hospital, 1995.
New England Deaconess School of Nursing Records, 1881-1989 (bulk 1900-1989). Boston College. Finding Aid available at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/3092.