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In three hundred years Harvard University has had over 65,000 graduates but has never given away a diploma to a single one of them.
The institution's founders regarded a diploma as a letter of recommendation, which each student must apply for and purchase personally. The same practice provails today. Unlike most other colleges, also, Harvard has never awarded diplomas to individual students at Commencement, but has requried graduates to make their own arrangements to pick up the document, or have it sent to them, after the exercises.
This was revealed in a display of rare historical Harvard diplomas, including the earliest Harvard diploma in existence, the first engraved diploma, and the new Bruce Rogers design adopted in 1935 now on view in Widener Library as a part of the Tercentenary Exhibit.
For nearly two hundred years after the founding of the college each student made up his own diploma citation, had it engrossed at his personal cost, and presented it for signature to the president and whatever members of the governing board he could find. The president received a fee for signing.
The earliest Harvard diploma is existence, drawn up in 1676 for George Alcock, class of 1673, was obtained in this way, the exhibit indicates.
Not until 1813 did the increasing number of graduates make it necessary for Harvard to adopt a single format and make up an engraved plate from which the diplomas could be run off.
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