Nursing School Graduation Pins


Photos by Vernon Dutton  To See More Pins                       

American Nursing Pins in History and in Context
Meribeth Meixner Reed, RN, PhD
5 August 2009
Since the earliest days of professional nursing in America, graduate nurses have proudly displayed on the uniform the pin that represents their individual School of Nursing. The nurse’s graduation pin is a treasured symbol that conveys to others her association and everlasting bond with her school.  Each pin is distinctive, representing only one program, and upholding the proud educational traditions of that school.  For the nurse, it also symbolizes honorable completion of a rigorous and physically demanding nursing preparation program. 
Particularly among numerous nursing schools that share a geographic location or tradition, the unique design of each school’s pin instantly identifies to others where the nurse graduated, in the same way women’s nursing caps once did.  While women students were customarily awarded the school’s cap or a student cap after reaching some designated point in the education program (such as completing a probation period or at the beginning of the second year), the pin was reserved as an honor awarded to celebrate graduation. 
From a handful of American Training Schools for Nurses in the 1870s, there was explosive development of nursing programs, with hundreds of schools operating in the 1890s.  In the second century of nursing education, since the 1970s, there have been 1300-1500 active nursing preparation programs at any time.  As nursing education has evolved to include different levels of entry to practice, many nursing schools have opened or closed or merged with other institutions such as colleges and hospitals, but the total number of schools over time is in the thousands. Imagine the unlimited variety of beautiful pins!
Members of the earliest classes in a new nursing school were responsible for designing a pleasing and meaningful pin to represent their school, aware they were creating a new tradition.  Although most nursing pins were created by specialty manufacturers, some of the earliest, exclusive pins were crafted by local fine jewelers.  Those pins were sometimes presented as graduation gifts from benefactors committed to supporting the school and its graduates.  It is customary for the nurse’s pin to be personalized with her monogram, initials, or full name and graduation year, so great sentiment is attached to the pin, and it is cherished as a piece of fine jewelry.
Nursing pins comprise a marvelous array of colors, shapes, and symbols.  There are various design elements, appealing to different admirers.  Some pins include the design within a frame or border, and others do not, but most pins average approximately one inch in diameter.  These works of art in miniature may be shiny and smooth to the touch or richly engraved with relief work.  Highly detailed pins may be pierced or layered.  The engraving of the logo and lettering may be done by machine or by hand, and occasionally exquisite scrollwork is also found in older pins.
Nurses’ graduation pins are fashioned from various metals, sometimes significant to the area or the tradition of the sponsoring institution.  Although gold and gold-filled designs are found most often, nursing pins are also created from copper – specifically in copper-rich regions of the Nation – or sterling silver or vermeil or pewter.  Some of those precious metals are coated for protection.  While some pins are minimally decorated, with starkly compelling monotone imprinted designs, others are richly decorated and colored.  Colors may be found in enamel or cloisonné, in jewels or colored stones, in seed pearls, or in the use of a variety of metals.
The shapes of nursing pins are varied.  Circular pins are perhaps most common, but other shapes include ovals – arranged horizontally or vertically – shields, triangles, and stars.  An extensive variety of crosses is found in the basic shapes of nursing pins or as an overlay against a background.  Dozens of cross designs include Celtic, Flory (flowery), Maltese, and Pattee.  Although great symbolism is attached to the structural design of the cross, the cross’ significance to the nursing school was probably more local than global.   
Similarly, the distinctive symbols represented in nursing pins are more likely to be meaningful to the institution than to the traditions of heraldry.  The Nightingale lamp is found frequently, as are leaves, laurel wreaths, and anchors.  Sacred objects are commonly included in the logo, particularly from nursing schools affiliated with a religious tradition.  The caduceus, traditionally the symbol of medicine, is occasionally found, as are decorative geometric designs.  Less frequently, the profile of a distinguished person is represented on the pin, and then it is usually the founding physician of the hospital or school.   Official seals may represent the state, church, or parent institution such as hospital, college, or university.  A few state or city hospitals that operated early nursing schools included a representation of the hospital building on the nursing pin, but more often state and city symbols such as flowers, birds, or feathers were captured on the pin.
Fashionable designs representing the times were reflected in nursing pins.  For example, many late 19th Century pins included a rectangular bar with a hanging device such as a circular emblem attached by a delicate chain.  Ribbons, bows, buckles, and patriotic bunting were worked into exquisite decorative symbols, often pierced, cutout, or layered, reminiscent of the Victorian era when they were designed.  The nurse’s pin secured a place of importance equal to the lady’s brooch.  Collectors of Victoriana are attracted to the elegance of nurses’ pins and chatelaines, and the number of militariana collectors branching into nursing treasures is also growing.
In the 21st Century, collectors have thousands of distinctive pins to discover and treasure.  Most nursing pin collectors are nurses or their family members who have developed a passion for these tiny, tangible symbols of this singularly respected profession.  The sentimental value increases over time, and the attachment becomes palpable when the prized pin is lost or misplaced and a replacement sought.  Many collectors start by searching to replace a specific pin, then developing a fascination for other nursing pins. In recent years, historic nursing memorabilia and ephemera have become more appealing to collectors, including nursing school alumnae associations, archives, and museums.  As schools of nursing celebrate milestones or prepare to close, they customarily prepare an illustrated history of the school, and their unique nursing pin may become a cherished centerpiece. 
The rarest collectors specialize in pins with specific design elements or symbolism, and they may feel drawn to the energy of individual pins in a way they cannot explain.  Handling these pins, they feel a connection with the original owner, and embracing this feeling by wearing or displaying the pin honors the nurse who earned it.  This passion stimulates them to continuously seek and expand their valuable collections.  Some have limited their collections to particularly beautiful designs in 10k or 14k gold, or to pins from specific schools of nursing, or to the most colorful pins they can find.     
Today these highly collectible treasures are worn as fine jewelry by men and women in addition to an adornment on the nurse’s uniform.  Although some clinical work environments discourage the wearing of pins for infection control reasons, particularly with scrub suits, the nurse may wear his pin on a lab coat or attached to his building ID badge.  In non-clinical settings, men and women may wear the pin as a tie bar or scarf ornament, or on the lapel or collar of a jacket or dress. 
The tradition of the nursing pin reflects the distinctive nursing school, the nurse’s pride in his or her school, and the honor of graduating into a profession of service to others.  The nurse’s pin is physical evidence that represents our professional history and heritage, and it is intrinsic to our identity.
 Follow us on Twitter