This is graduation week, when we celebrate achievement and completion with pieces of paper, as we have for hundreds of years. No one wants a digital diploma! Even that avatar of online higher education, Southern New Hampshire University, has a television commercial showing university representatives traveling across the country presenting diplomas to graduates: their educational experience can be impersonal but not its culmination, apparently. Despite a lifetime spent in education, as a student and teacher, I am a late bloomer when it comes to commencements: I skipped both my undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, much to my regret, and once I became a professor I continued to avoid what I perceived as a long, boring, and formulaic ritual. But when I became chair of my department five years ago, I decided that it was my responsibility to attend, and so I dusted off the unused (and very expensive) gown I had purchased years ago and marched out there. I thought I was going for my colleagues—to be with those that went, to be an example to those that didn’t—but it was all about the students. As soon as the (yes, long and boring) ceremony was over, we ran out into the fresh air, and our students ran to us, sometimes even before their parents. Together, we had reached a destination–a place–after completing a long journey. And you really have to show up to realize that you’ve arrived.
I like nineteenth-century American “rewards of merit”, given by teachers to their students in recognition of certain qualities (diligence and deportment above all) as historical expressions of both the personal and the professional relationships that exist in any educational environment. They look formulaic, like a diploma, but they also represent an individual relationship—and achievement. As an ephemeral genre, they can testify to the evolution of printing and production techniques as well as educational objectives. Rewards of merit were produced in Great Britain too, but they really flourished in the United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. I prefer the earlier forms from the first part of the century: written or sparsely printed, just a few images, some “colored in” with watercolors by teachers who wanted to add a more personal touch. Once you get into the later era of polychromatic cards, you lose a lot of the personal connection, and it seems as if they did too.
A very early American Reward of Merit, or “conferment of honor” from William Arms to his student Amos Hamilton in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1795 © Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. In the larger towns and cities of Massachusetts, printed reward of merit forms were used right from the beginning of the nineteenth-century, but hand-written citations continued in the country: below, Tirza Lampson’s “diligence and virtue” is rewarded in Charlton, Massachusetts, and Azubah Clark is “presented with this honorary emblem, for her being a good scholar and hereby is recommended for her studious attention laudable improvements, and admirable behavior in school, for which, she merits the sincere thanks of her instructress Rebecca Walton Temple”, both in 1811.
And then there were the forms, which were personalized by notes and watercoloring by the instructors and “instructresses”.
Rewards of merit for Philip Harman in Boston (1815); Martha Page in Danvers (1818); Martha Barker in Boston (1819); Marietta Bailey in Newburyport (1828); the Misses Fairbanks and Prebble in Taunton (1934); Nancy Fairbanks in Boston (1842); Grace Cobb in East Bridgewater (1851); Leuella Mills in Methuen (1868), and two certificates received by Master Abner Bow in 1876. All from the American Broadsides and Ephemera database of collections of the American Antiquarian Society.
These last two rewards are charming but they’re getting a bit busy for me (what is that “sea horse”?): the imagery is overwhelming the student-instructor relationship. From this point on, these little slips of paper become more colorful, flowery, sentimental and generic, with one notable–and striking exception, the monotonal, monographic MERIT “badge” of the later nineteenth century. What other sentiment do you need? Well, maybe ONWARD and UPWARD.
Rewards of Merit cards 1880-1993, Historic New England.