A Brief History of the Cap

The tradition of wearing a nurse's cap originated in the 19th century, but its popularization and later decline in the 20th century revealed layers of lost traditions. Famous for wearing a tortoiseshell comb in her cap, Florence Nightingale wanted the profession of nursing to be elevated, and as all dignified women wore caps indoors at the time, Nightingale recommended nurses wear them too. In the United States, wearing a cap was formalized in 1873 when Linda Richards, the first trained nurse in the nation, chose to adopt one. When the California Hospital School of Nurses opened in 1898, a cap was a requirement for all students and nurses. The caps worn by California Hospital's nursing students designated a nurse's rank in training (shown at right). The style of the modern nurse's cap was arguably influenced by Los Angeles County General's cap design and its use in Hollywood film and television.

By the 1950s cap designations were specific. For the first six months of a student nurse's training, the probationary period, nurses were called "probies" and wore abbreviated versions of the nurse's cap. If the probie was successful in the first six months of training, she would participate in a capping ceremony where a cap was placed on the student's head and the student took the Florence Nightingale Pledge. As the student progressed, she would be awarded different insignia to add to the cap. Many believed the loss of the cap was a detriment to the nursing profession. Its loss put an end to one nursing rite of passage (the progress from student to nurse). The cap provided information to patients by allowing them to distinguish nurses from other hospital workers.

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