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Sepia-toned photograph of students smoking pipes at commencement
Pipe-smoking seniors in 1942

You know about “Pomp and Circumstance”, diplomas, caps, and gowns, but how about pipe smoking and cane ceremonies? We’re sharing our favorite Middlebury Commencement traditions in honor of this weekend’s graduation ceremonies and the Class of 2021.

Adapted from a two-part blog series posted in May, 2016 by Special Collections Associate, Samuel Cartwright ‘18.

Pipe smoking at Commencement?

Just as coming across full page ads for Chesterfield cigarettes used to be part and parcel of reading the latest edition of The Campus, pipe-smoking was once a traditional part of Middlebury’s graduation festivities. Dating back to at least the 1920s during the “Class Day” activities that preceded commencement, graduates would gather outside to take puffs on long white pipes (sometimes lit by proud parents) before heading off to the alumni barbecue.

Black-and-white photograph of four female graduates wearing caps and gowns and holding long white pipes at commencement
Pipe-smoking in 1948

This compilation of 16mm film footage from the College Archives captures the pipe smoking tradition from the late 1920s to mid-40s. Although even those graduates who coughed through the smoke appear to have had a swell time, the annual tradition eventually ended in what we can only assume was the interest of public health.

Graduation Traditions: Pipe Smoking

Cane ceremonies?

In the 1940s, a revival in interest in Gamaliel Painter, one of Middlebury’s founders and early benefactors, saw the birth of a new graduation tradition. During convocation ceremonies at Middlebury’s former Women’s College, graduates began passing down replicas of Painter’s cane to the junior class. Today, every Middlebury graduate receives such a replica to keep as a symbol of their alma mater and with which to tap along when “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane” is sung at reunion.

This compilation of 16mm film footage from the college archives shows the cane-passing ceremony as part of convocation processions in the 1940s held behind Forest Hall.

Graduation Traditions: Cane Ceremony

As can be expected, not all traditions are universally beloved. In a letter to the editor in the May 13, 1954 issue of The Middlebury Campus, Anne Davis ‘54 had the following to say:


Snip from a 1954 issue of the Campus in which Anne Davis '54 criticizes the cane ceremony

Find out more about the story of Painter’s cane and its place in Middlebury history in The Story of Middlebury’s Cane Tradition a video created by the College’s own Chris Spencer, Stephen Diehl, Benjamin Savard ’14, and Matthew Lennon ’13.

Tree planting?

Perhaps a more “traditional” tradition than pipe smoking is tree planting, which also seems to have taken place at Class Day activities into the 1950s. Early versions of this tradition in the 1800s saw students planting ivy near campus buildings. A number of the trees planted on Class Day are still alive and well on campus today!

Graduation Traditions: Tree Planting

Want more archival film footage? We have a Vimeo channel!

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