ON 13 JANUARY 1888, the National Geographic Society was established during a meeting held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. The meeting was attended by explorers, scientists and entrepreneurs seeking to professionalise and popularise geographic research. Its first president was the financier Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who had, three years earlier, helped his son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell set up the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Bell—standing at the far right of the front row in this 1909 group photo outside the society’s headquarters—succeeded Hubbard as the NGS president, in 1897.
Nine months after the NGS was formed, it began publishing the magazine National Geographic. Initially presented as a scholarly journal, the magazine saw a rise in popularity following the Spanish–American War of 1898, as the United States’ first ever acquisition of overseas colonies—Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines—sparked widespread interest in geography. In order to boost circulation and advertising revenue, Bell sought to make the new magazine “bright and interesting, with a multitude of good illustrations and maps.” For this purpose, he hired as assistant editor a young Cornell graduate named Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, who would go on to marry Bell’s daughter and succeed him as NGS president.
Grosvenor’s efforts alienated a large section of the NGS membership, who preferred, as Bell described it in a letter to his assistant editor, “a strict, technical, scientific journal for high class geographers and geological experts.” In 1904, many of them left to form the Association of American Geographers. Following this exodus, Grosvenor consolidated power around himself and excluded the membership from decision-making. Although it lost status among professional geographers, the NGS’s popularity grew even further when it sponsored Robert Peary—standing with a cane in the front row—in his 1908–09 expedition to the North Pole. By 1920, it had over seven hundred thousand members.