United States Boys' Cap Styles: Mortar Boards

Figure 1.--This boy wears a Fauntleroy suit with a mortar board (academic) cap. It is undated, but was probably taken in the 1890s. For some unknown reason, the Fauntleroy suit was often paired with mortar board caps. The enscription on the back reads, 'Grand Dad as a little boy! John Young" {Last name is indistinct.) The studio was Taylor in Helena, Montana.

The mortar board square academic is also known as a graduate cap. The term mprtat board comes from similarity in appearance to the 'hawk' used by bricklayers to hold mortar. Mortar board is a colloquial name, but the most commonly used in America. We have als seen Oxford cap used, but more in England. The mortar board was academic head dress consisting of a horizontal square board set upon a skull-cap. A tassel attached to the center. These caps in Europe had long histories dating back to medieval universities. In America it was simply an inherited style from Britain. We see boys wearing these caps in the 19th century, most commonly as far as we can tell, younger boys. we see these caps for some reasom paired with Fauntleroy suits. We have no idea why. The only connection we can think of is the school boys in Enland thst wore mortar boards. They were one of many different headwear styles we note being worn with Fauntleroy suits. Boy in Britain wore mortar boards at some schools, mostly prep schools. But this was never the case in the United States. While we no longer see this after the turn-of-the 20th century. The mortar board became standard for graduationncermonies, both high school and college as part of cap and gown ceremonies. We also see them being used in recent years for pre-school/kindergarden graduation as a kind of cutsie ceremony.

A reader writes, "I was thinking that the mortar board may represent someone graduating maybe from kindergarten to grammar school or something." Graduation is certainly he modern significance. But in Britain the masters (teachers) at a many private schools wore motarboards and academic roibes. You can see that in films like 'Good bye Mr. Chips'. And at some prep schools the boys also wore them. A few choir schools still do. This was not just for graduation, but regular school wear. This was not the case in America.. And Kindergardens did not yet exist in the 1880s. As far as we can tell it was simply a fashion matter. How it developed I have no idea. We can only think that some American mothers saw English boys wearing them. Note, however, that the boy here was from a family in Montana, so it does not seem to have been limited to fashionable northeastern families.


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Created: 2:36 AM 11/22/2009
Last updated: 9:02 PM 8/24/2014