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Origin of the mortarboard hat

By Russell Herner • May 25, 2018 at 11:00 AM

A graduation mortarboard hat, as a symbol of graduation, looks exactly like a flat stonemason mortarboard.

There are many old customs and traditions that we participate in today without ever really knowing the original purpose for doing so. In some instances, the initial meaning of these traditions has been lost over time, and no one ever questions their beginnings. The meaning behind millions of students wearing the mortarboard hat at graduation is a case in point that I believe slipped through the cracks. After much research, I am convinced that the centuries-old tradition of wearing these funny-looking hats at graduation originated in the Middle Age stonemason apprenticeship schools of Europe. I believe this old tradition occurred when the stonemason apprentice graduated to the degree level of ‘Master Mason”.

A stonemason’s mortarboard is a flat piece of wood measuring about 24 inches square. It is usually placed on a stand on the scaffolding near the wall being built. The mortarboard held the wet mortar until the stone setter applied it to the stones with the mason’s trowel. The setter than placed the mortared stone into the wall. After the mortar dried around the stone, a strong solid wall was formed.

A skullcap was a brimless cloth cap typically worn in the ancient stonemason’s day. Taken together, the mortarboard and skull cap look exactly like a modern graduation cap. Today’s graduation caps are even called ‘mortarboard hats’.

Here is a brief description of the stonemason’s apprenticeship program:

For centures, during the Middle Ages of Europe, the Master Masons conducted apprenticeship schools to teach the young apprentices the craft of stonemasonry and ‘The Art of Geometry’. The apprenticeship training program was very intense and completed over several years of hard work and study. It was a combination of both practical (hands-on stonemasonry), as well as theoretical (architectural and engineering) training. The training included educating young men in the craft of stonemasonry, liberal arts, sciences, communication skills, and especially geometry.

Geometry and masonry were synonymous terms in the stonemason’s training program. Geometry and building craft secrets were passed down through the generations by word of mouth in the program. The stonemason schools were certainly the top-notch schools of the day.

Bright young men in their early teens, who showed potential for learning and demonstrated good manual skills, were selected to enroll in the apprenticeship program. The Master Mason and apprentice’s parent signed an official document called an indenture (contract) that confirmed the Master Mason would train the apprentice in the stonemason’s craft. It specified the number of years of the agreement and bound both parties to a set of disciplined work rules and conduct.

Note, not all of the stonemason apprentice students that were selected continued in the program, but rather stopped when the requirements of the program exceeded the skill level of each mason. The masons then continued working on the project at their own skill levels.

The operative stonemason apprenticeship program was a system of three degrees. The plain Apprentice degree required one year of training, the Entered Apprentice three years of training, and the traditional Fellow of the Craft/Master Mason degree seven years of training. Upon completion of his demanding 11-year apprenticeship training program, the Master Mason could take on stonemasonry projects of his own, or it was customary for him to go on a Journeyman’s tour for an additional three years of training to other cathedral or major construction sites.

The Journeyman’s tour was also called Wanderyears or Wanderjahrs in German. On this tour he would visit cathedrals in his own country, as well as foreign countries, to observe the most up-to-date design techniques being used. These visits greatly broadened his knowledge base and provided him with new ideas for future projects. After 14 years of intense apprenticeship training, coupled with experience and observation from other major cathedral structures, the Master Mason was then well equipped to take on a building commission of his own. After a Master Mason received a commission to design and build his first major project such as a cathedral, he essentially became a “Master Builder”. Not surprisingly, the graduate Master Masons from the apprenticeship schools were some of the most highly educated people in the community at that time. The Master Builder’s brilliance is reflected in the magnificent European cathedrals!

A cathedral is a work of art, and the Master Builder, in an amazing display of talent, designed and constructed the cathedrals with a mission to replicate heaven on earth, and to please God in every small detail. He was the architect, general contractor, engineer, artist, sculptor, surveyor, draftsman, teacher of the apprentices, and supervisor of the craftsman. He was generally literate in English, French, and Latin, which allowed him to travel from country to country to different building sites and properly communicate architectural and stonemasonry construction techniques with other masters, craftsmen, bishops, and patrons. He was a highly educated professional architect, influential in the community, and enjoyed the respect and esteem of his peers. The Master Builders were brilliant and were the cream of the craft. 

The Master Masons and Master Builders were essentially the early school teachers and professors of the stonemason students in the apprenticeship schools during the Middle Ages. I maintain the stonemason apprenticeship schools played a very big role in the early formal educational systems in Europe.

The Connection Between Apprenticeship Graduation and Mortarboard Hats

What if the modern graduation cap came into being as a result of medieval Master Masons graduating from apprenticeship schools? Consider the following scenario:

Richard just graduated from the Apprenticeship school after many long years of intensive training, achieving the degree level of ‘Master Mason’. Wanting to celebrate this milestone with the masons and fellow workers in the lodge, he invited them to a festive gathering with food and drink. This is how the conversation might have gone.

“Let’s crown Richard ‘King of the Master Masons’ with a King’s crown,” said one of the guests.

“No, we can’t do that. He’s not a King.”

“Well, then let’s crown him with his own mason’s mortarboard and use it as a crown of our craft and authority.”

So, the old mortarboard was washed and tacked to Richard’s skullcap and placed upside down on his head. ‘King of the Master Masons”! they all cheered and toasted their drinks to him in celebration.

From that day on, all the other graduates from the stonemason apprenticeship schools celebrated their graduation ceremonies with a mason’s mortarboard hat crowned on their heads. The mortarboard hat then became the traditional symbol of graduation for schools around the world.

Over time, colleges and universities embellished the mortarboard hats with modifications and decorations such as adding tassels and a variety of colors to distinguish different branches of education and degree levels. Robes and gowns were added some years later to the mortarboard hat dress, elevating the intellectual status of the graduate.

Today, hundreds of millions of students around the world wear the mortarboard hats at their graduation ceremonies from high school, colleges, and universites. The mortarboard hat is a symbol of graduation and had its origin in the stonemason apprenticeship schools of Europe when the ‘Master Mason’ graduated!


Russell Herner is from Bellevue. This article is an expanded version of a short reference made about the mortarboard hat in his book, “Cathedrals Built by the Masons”, Schiffer Publishing Co., Atglen, Pa. It was included in a chapter titled, ‘The Stonemason Apprenticeship Program’. Reprinted by permission.


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