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Two Cheers for the National Geographic


A well meaning, albeit trenchant, scrutiny of a grand old American magazine (“as American as a tribe of Bushmen”), plus a few photographic fantasies concerning the wonderful world of said grand old American magazine


By Anne Chamberlin, Esquire Magazine, December 1963


As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of its publication, I have decided to do a brief review of one of the best articles about, and parody of, the National Geographic ever written.  Ms. Chamberlin’s article is detailed but lighthearted history of The Society and its signature magazine.  In the spirit of the title, I have chosen two excerpts, as well as two of the three photographic fantasies mentioned above, to give everyone a taste.  The first excerpt is from the beginning of the article:


“Brooks-Brothers leaned back on his wami-wami and stuck the yellow stem of his pipe in his toothless mouth.  I learned later that his teeth had been pulled by the carefree, fun-loving islanders several years before in an effort to find where he hid his rum.  “This is paradise,” he said simply, shaking with a malarial spasm.  “Here is an island which knows no war, no bigotry, no sanitation, no nothing!’”

– Mad Magazine, July, 1958.

Any true believer – and the world now contains over 3,300,000 of them – will recognize that some irreverent cad of a Mad writer is needling the most durable piece of furniture in his home: the National Geographic Magazine.  But he and his fellow certificate-holding members of the National Geographic Society which publishes this monthly monument to travel, adventure and nature’s wonders will be undisturbed.  As one devotee has said: “Laughing at the National Geographic is like laughing at Harvard.  No matter how hearty and well-deserved the laughter, it is still a great institution.”

In the seventy-six years of its existence, the National Geographic Society (“The Society,” as it calls itself) has become the biggest, most prolific, profitable, and altogether astonishing combination of magazine and book publisher, news service, teaching aid, mapmaker and Science Club in the world…

In the true spirit of Yuletide, the National Geographic thrust wide its portals for a Christmas party attended by faithful old friends.


The second excerpt is from the heart of the article and shows the details which Ms. Chamberlin captured the human side of the National Geographic, its editors, and its readers:


After publishing one indigestible treatise by a professor of geography, Grosvenor vowed that “From that day, no sentence has found space in the National Geographic that could not be readily understood.”  None has.  And as Dr. Grosvenor says, “This clarity of language has made it possible for extraordinary numbers of people to discover how geography opens doors to a fuller life.”  When an article about farming possibilities in Alaska was rejected because one member of the Publication Committee “had climbed glaciers there and suffered from cold,” Grosvenor threw the principle of Editorship by Committee out the window too.

From then on he took The Magazine from one heady innovation to another, each a more dazzling success than the last.  In the issue of May, 1903, The Magazine contained a picture showing two scowling Tagbanua women harvesting rice in the Calamianes Islands, bare from the waist up.  Its use in a family magazine at a time when the female form was concealed from neck to ankle was a daring decision.  Since then, to the everlasting joy of its readers, The Magazine has women all over the world in true native undress, with no trouble from the U. S. mails.  (Actually, Geographic purists point out that in June, 1898, there was a picture of a “married Mangyan woman, showing typical costume” [i.e., none], but those were The Magazine’s more technical days.)

A second historic turning point came to Gilbert Grosvenor one December morning in 1904 when, “deeply discouraged,” he faced an eleven-page vacuum for the January issue.  “There is no tyranny so absolute as a printer’s deadline, but I simply did not have a good manuscript available.”  In a packet on his desk were fifty photographs of Lhasa in Tibet, offered to The Society for nothing by a Russian explorer.  “When I went home I told my wife that I expected to be fired for publishing eleven solid pages of scenic pictures – particularly since the plates had been paid for from our slender resources.  But my anxiety was soon dispelled when members of The Society stopped me on the street to tell me how much they enjoyed the first photographs from romantic Lhasa.”

From this daring use of pictures, to color photography to – yes – even to the dizzy adventure of putting color pictures on the cover, The Magazine has waxed and flourished, first under his longtime associate, John Oliver La Gorce (who has a mountain, a lake, and a glacier in Alaska named after him, a meteorological station, mountain range, and peak in Antarctica, a golf course, country club, drive and island in Miami Beach), before being entrusted to his son Melville Grosvenor…


As you may have noticed, a cropped version the second photograph appears in the September 1988 One Hundredth Anniversary issue.  (I even use that version as the background to my member page.)  As for the third parody photography in the article, it is full-page in size which is a problem for copying.  Esquire is an oversized publication, about 13” by 10” in dimensions.  The photo is not of the quality of the other two so it really was not worth the effort anyway.  It is a image of a man in a snowstorm, dressed in fur, goggles and snowshoes, pointing with one hand at the outstretched palm of the other.  A black dot is among the snow in his palm.  The caption title and caption text read:


Typical news scoop, exclusive in the pages of N. G.

“At the very tip of the South Pole, I encountered the common housefly!”  Whipped by icy gusts in the white wilderness, National Geographic’s man-in-the-field makes a truly startling scientific discovery which will benefit all mankind forever.


This article is an excellent read and a worthy addition to anyone’s collection.  I hope this little sidestep into the past from outside the yellow borders is enjoyed.


Yours in collecting,

Tom Wilson

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