This is the 17th in a series of vignettes about Connecticut nursing history by Eleanor Krohn Herrmann, nurse historian and professor emerita, University of Connecticut


For more than a century, American nurses have taken considerable pride in wearing their school of nursing pin. The pins, sometimes called badges, have been prized and lasting symbols awarded to those who successfully completed a course of study in nursing.

The origin of the nursing pin lies in heraldry, the field that deals with the use, display and regulations of armorial bearings used for the purpose of identification. Such symbols reflect the early 12th century practice of painting one’s symbol on his shield and on the linen surcoat that covered the mail-armor of a knight so that a knight could differentiate friend from foe on the battlefield.

As the use of armor became obsolescent, so too did the original purpose of symbols on it. The symbols, however, were not discarded. Instead they were incorporated on family coats of arms and were considered distinctive marks of an individual’s rank and gentility.

With the revival of trade in the 14th century, merchants and craftsmen experienced newfound prosperity. To protect their interests, trades with common interests banded together and formed guilds which then adopted symbols indicative of their common bond. Schools and universities did likewise. The group’s symbol became that of the individual and inherent in the symbol were the concepts of exclusivity, prestige, protection, fidelity, training and standards.

The fact that American nursing chose to follow the medieval identification practice is interesting, particularly in light of the fact that 19th century nurses were rebuked for wearing any type of ornamentation on or with their uniforms. Perhaps precedent and approval he with the brooch that Queen Victoria presented to Florence Nightingale in 1855. The specially designed gold and enamel brooch, presented to show personal esteem and gratitude for Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War, resembled a decorative regimental badge. The shape, colors and emblems on that badge gave special testimony to Nightingale’s allegiance, character, purpose and inspiration.

A more plausible explanation for modern day nursing’s adoption of a school of nursing pin is tied to the tenets of guilds. Like the emblems that identified members of a specific guild, the distinctive caps and uniforms worn by early trained nurses initially provided adequate outward confirmation that they were indeed trained. Before long, however, the public’s growing recognition of the worthiness of nurses, but its ignorance of what constituted legitimate nurse’s training for that time period, inadvertently allowed some unscrupulous individuals to imitate the trained nurses’ demeanor and attire. Disturbed by the imposters’ infringement and exploitation, some graduating classes of trained nurses took matters into their own hands; they designed and adopted “class pins” to wear on their uniform.

While the adoption of class pins was an attempt to thwart deception by others and to differentiate competent from incompetent practitioners, the wide variations in the pins from class to class in a single school ultimately negated the intended purpose. To overcome that limitation, the administrators of schools of nursing began awarding their graduates an official and distinctive pin that uniquely represented their institution. Commonly the pins were also engraved on the reverse side with the graduate’s name and date of graduation. In some cases the pins were gifts from the school’s Board of Managers; other times the graduates purchased them from the school.

The earliest known U.S. school of nursing pin was designed for the Bellevue Hospital Training School in New York by Tiffany and Company. First awarded in 1880, seven years after the school was founded, it was given to the Bellevue graduates by the Board of Women Managers “to preserve the identity and uphold the standing of the school” . . . and to be a “mark of character as well as achievement” (Bellevue, 1923, n.p.).

In 1882, the Board of Governors of the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses stated their opinion on the matter of nursing pins in the following manner:

. . . It is desirable that a badge should be worn by the graduates of the school while in service as identifying them with the hospital school more conspicuously than their diploma, as a proper stimulus to their ambition, and as a protection against a practice Which has grown up and will naturally increase among certain young women who have been more or less connected with the school, of passing themselves off and obtaining employment as graduate nurses (Jordon, 1953, p.28).

Wearing an authorized school of nursing pin had further significance. The pins were one of the earliest visible signs of the evolving movement toward legal regulation of nurses. (It was not until 1903, however, that the first four states (North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia) passed nurse registration legislation. Connecticut enacted a nurse registration law in 1905.)

Between 1873 when the Connecticut Training School was founded in New Haven and the beginning of the 21st century when Gateway Community College and Goodwin College opened their nursing programs, there have been 47 programs in the state of Connecticut that have offered generic preparation for the practice of professional nursing. The pins of those schools represent programs in hospitals, colleges and universities.

Each school has had a unique school of nursing pin. Some designs were modified to reflect changes in the school’s purpose or administration, but otherwise they have remained constant throughout the school’s existence. Unfortunately, confirmed information about the original designer, manufacturer and rationale for the specific shape of and motifs on the pins has, in a number of cases, been lost so one can only offer conjecture about the significance of the original design.

An overall analysis of Connecticut pins revealed that all were gold and that well over half also had colored enamel overlays. While the most popular overall shape of the pin was a circle or oval, shields, triangles and crosses were also common choices. The most prevalent motifs on the face of the Connecticut pins were lamps of knowledge and religions symbols, representations associated with intellectual and spiritual light. Another frequently occurring theme was laurel, commonly considered a symbol of achievement and distinction. The pins of schools of nursing associated with the state of Connecticut often portray an historic Charter Oak motif, and several schools, both long-established and more recent ones, included a caduceus, generally considered a symbol of the medical profession. The school’s name and motto also often appeared on a pin.

Connecticut school of nursing pins also presented some unusual motifs. Included among them are a teepee (to recognize the Tunxis Indians of the area where the school was located), a griffin (to give honor to a hospital benefactor by the stone name), and a rose leaf (inspired by Henry Ward Beecher’s comment that the city of Norwich where the school was located was the “Rose of New England”).

As a composite, the Connecticut school of nursing pins reflect aspects of governance, history, values and dreams of the state’s nursing profession through the ages.

Bellevue Training School for Nurses. (1923). NY.

Jordon, H, (1957-). Cornell University-New York Hospital School of Nursing. NY: Society of the N. Y. Hospital.

Additional sources available from author by written request.

See page 23 for photo information about purchasing Connecticut School of Nursing Pins. Poster designed by Eleanor Krohn Herrmann.

Copyright Connecticut Nurses’ Association Mar-May 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved