Back in Cheyenne when I was a kid, my mother’s nearly unbroken collection of National Geographic magazines took up all four shelves of a very tall book case in the basement. The eagerly awaited monthly additions to the collection adorned the coffee table and then lingered for a few months in the magazine rack by my father’s chair until joining the archives.
The collection began in the late 1920’s, begun by her mother Mona. Despite a few gaps in the early Depression years when the family could hardly feed itself let alone afford such a luxury, she kept up her subscription through thick and thin, a World War and a dozen moves from Missouri to Iowa to the Minnesota Iron Range, to Montana, to Colorado and finally to Wyoming.
It was no mean feat just lugging them around. As anyone can attest who has ever tried it a paper carton of the dense, glossy paper magazines weighed about as much as your average anvil.
They were an aspirational symbol of my mother’s steely determination to improve herself, to rise above the stark poverty of her childhood and establish herself as a well read and sophisticated matron, worthy of the respect and admiration of society. And they were not just for ostentatious display. She read every one cover to cover, just as she did the novels of the Great American Writers that she collected from the Book of the Month Club.
She was exactly the middlebrow audience the magazine was geared to—intelligent readers who would never have the opportunity to visit the exotic locals explored in its pages.
I was equally engrossed by them. Yes, I will admit that like nearly every horny pre-teen in America I got my first exciting look at boobs in photos of African tribal women and that I may have returned to those particular issues more regularly than others. But I surfed through them all, just as I eagerly awaited the arrival of new copies. It was not just the travel pieces, but the in depth—for the time—exploration of the growing study of human evolution, exploration of oceans’ depths with their unimaginably strange creatures, and coverage of the dawning space age that enthralled me.
And the maps, those glorious, huge maps that came tucked in the magazine about four times a year to be unfolded and spread out over the carpet and studied in all of their rich detail on both sides. I would cover the walls of my basement room with them like other kids did with posters of fast cars or sports heroes.
All in all, I have to admit to getting a good chunk of my education from those magazines with the bright yellow frame on the cover.
Our family was not alone in this. Hundreds of thousands of others did much the same. Which is why that even today boxes of old Geographics can be found in garage sales. They are so common in fact, that unlike copies of Life, Look, or the Saturday Evening Post that tended to be thrown out after a few weeks, the Geographic has practically no value to collectors despite their handsome contents.
It all began, of course, very differently. On September 22 1880 the first issue came off the presses. It had a drab brown cover. Inside, with no illustrations what so ever, were dry, scholarly articles meant to be of interest to sophisticated readers. Not that it had many. The first issue went out to the 187 members of the fledgling National Geographic Society founded just months earlier in Washington, D.C.
Charter members of the Society, formed in January of that year included several eminent names: inventor Alexander Graham Bell; Bell’s father-in-law, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard; explorers John Wesley Powell and A.W. Greeley; and scholar George Kennan. Hubbard, one of Bell’s first investors and first President of Bell Telephone, assumed the helm of the fledgling organization and was the force behind the launch of the Magazine and it de-facto editor.
In 1880 the original brown cover was replaced with the famous Yellow Border with inner elaborate oak leaf scroll work framing the table of contents.
The magazine came out sporadically until going monthly in 1896. Circulation had grown to about 1000, mostly members of the Society but some subscriptions and a hand full of newsstand sales. The next year Hubbard died and Bell assumed the presidency of the Society.
The magazine had been intended to fund the Society’s sponsorship of exploratory expeditions and other expenses. Both it and the Society were floundering. Bell decided that a new tact was necessary—to open up Society membership to the general public using an upgraded Magazine as a major lure. He felt that the middle class would flock to membership that had been limited to scientists, explorers, and a handful of wealthy patrons. For this plan to work, the Magazine had to cease being a purely academic journal and offer stories of general interest written for the intelligent lay reader in mind.
Bell was then spending most of his time in Nova Scotia and concentrating his efforts on the development of self-propelled heavier than air craft. He knew that he would have to bring in someone to manage the Magazine on a hands-on basis. In 1899 Bell recruited the 23 year old son of a respected historian to assume editorship of the Magazine. Gilbert H. Grosvenor was teaching school in New Jersey before he took the job. For the first few years Bell paid his annual salary out of his own pocket.
Grosvenor was wildly successful in carrying out Bell’s vision. He hired professional journalists to pen articles. Sometimes they took dry academic reports and simple translated them into readable English. But soon writers were accompanying the expeditions the Society sponsored and were engaged to do more conventional travel pieces to spots all over the world. The pages of the magazine were still dense with type, the articles long, and no illustrations, but they were highly readable in those days people had the leisure—and fewer distractions—to invest in reading them.
By 1906 Grosvenor, who often faced opposition from conservative Board members, had raised circulation to 11,000 member/subscribers. He not only won plaudits for his success, he also won the hand of Bell’s daughter Elsie in 1900.
Contributing to the popularity of the Magazine were exciting first person accounts of the expeditions the Society sponsored, including Robert E. Peary’s Polar expeditions.
Another reason for the growth was the introduction of photographs Grosvenor had been trying to introduce illustrations—particularly photographs—to the magazine for some time, but there was still heavy resistance to “cheapening” the magazine in that way by the Board. When a planned article did not arrive with just days to spare to printing leaving an 11 page hole in the Magazine, he filled those pages with unsolicited photos of Lhasa, Tibet—the first ever seen in the West—that had fortuitously arrived just days earlier. The photos caused a sensation. Soon photographers were accompanying journalists and explorers. By the 1908 half of the magazine’s editorial space was taken up by photos.
Just two years later he introduced color photos using color screen plates in a spread of photos from Korea and Japan. In 1916 he introduced the first “natural color” photographs.
Bell had retired as President in 1903 but remained an influential Board member and a frequent contributor of articles. A succession of short term presidents of the Society followed until Grosvenor was elected President in 1920 while maintaining editorship of the Magazine.
A cartographic division was launched, eventually named National Geographic Maps. The first fold-out map included in a magazine was of the World War I Western Front. The Society’s extraordinarily detailed maps—and their wide variety including maps with depiction of geological features, historical maps, political maps that were up to date in a world of shifting boundaries, and specialty maps of every sort insured both their popularity and usefulness. In World War II the Allies often found Geographic maps superior to any from their own cartographic and inelegance services.
Grosvenor insisted on editorial “neutrality” in his converge of the world, concentrating of the culture and history of different people and avoiding condemnation of their governance, religion, or life style. The Magazine maintained this neutrality even through two World Wars and growing ideological divides. The policy drew criticism, even condemnation, from all sides. But it also helped guarantee that writer and photographers would be granted access to nations and regions across the globe.
Grosvenor remained at the helm of the Society and Magazine until his retirement in 1954. The magazine then had a readership of over two million and in addition to a regular publications for public schools and book publishing.
His son, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was society president and editor from 1957 to 1967 and editor in chief until 1977. His grandson, Gilbert Melville Grosvenor took over as editor and executive of the Society. He currently holds the position of is currently vice-president and editor. Gilbert has been Board Chair since 1987, although management of the Society and editorship of the magazine are now in other hands. It is a remarkable four generation dynasty of leadership.
Although circulation of the magazine is down from its heyday, compared to other venerable print journals it is healthy. Quality remains high. Success has been due to the willingness of the Society to use its Yellow Boarder logo and prestige to branch out into highly successful ventures in other media, including its award winning films and a cable network channel.