A Man, A Magazine, A Mission
Gilbert H. Grosvenor had barely arrived in town before turning up for work at the Society’s “office”—half a rented room in a crowded building across the street from the U.S. Treasury. It was April Fools’ Day of 1899, and Grosvenor must have thought the joke was on him: As he took in his new surroundings, his gaze came to rest on a small coal grate, a nearby fire escape—tempting, no doubt—and piles of unsold National Geographics, returned by local newsstands.
National Geographic Society founder and President Alexander Graham Bell, he soon learned, was convinced that a membership composed chiefly of government scientists— among them many who discouraged the “excessive use of picture and anecdote” in their lectures—was too narrow a base on which to build a truly national organization. With only 1,000 names enrolled, he needed to attract a broader spectrum of dues-paying members, and the only instrument he had on hand was National Geographic. Grosvenor’s task was to help volunteer editor John Hyde make it as smart and appealing as the nation’s leading magazines. Use “pictures,” Bell urged his new protégé, “and plenty of them.” For “ ‘The world and all that is in it’ is our theme, and if we can’t find anything to interest ordinary people in that subject we better shut up shop and become a strict, technical, scientific journal for high-class geographers and geological experts.”
Eventually the discouraged Hyde resigned outright, leaving Grosvenor huddled by the coal grate on early winter mornings, or working on the fire escape on stifling summer evenings as, month by month, he sought the elusive secret of success. For every sobersided article he published on the work of the government’s scientific bureaus, he tried to print a countervailing cultural piece on, say, the Boxer Rebellion in China or the revolt of the Ashantis in Ghana. And wherever he cast about for material, he seized every picture he could lay his hands on. In January 1905 he published 11 rare photographs, shot clandestinely by Russian explorers disguised as Tibetan monks, of the forbidden city of Lhasa. In April came 138 photo- graphs of Philippine tribesmen, pored over by Americans curious about the people in their newest colony, ceded to them as spoils of the Spanish-American War. As a result, membership soared in 1905 from 3,256 to 11,479. Grosvenor had reached the turning point—the end of the beginning.