Photograph by Emory Kristof
Photograph by Skip Brown
The explorers' projects interactive uses the color pallette of the National Geographic flag, representing all areas explorers are discovering; green for the sea, brown for the land, and blue for the sky.
In early 1903, as its first permanent headquarters building was nearing completion only a few blocks away from the White House, the National Geographic Society’s director and editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, concluded that it was high time the fifteen-year-old organization had its own distinctive flag.
Grosvenor was an exacting man. He did not want a flag emblazoned with the Society’s seal, a detailed impression of the Western Hemisphere, because that might not be easily recognized at a distance. “A flag that is not readable fails in the purpose for which flags exist,” he declared. It should rather “tell the observer who is assembled with it.” It should be clean, simple, and instantly identifiable.
So his wife took up the challenge of designing a flag. Elsie May Grosvenor was the clever daughter of the Society’s President, famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell. After some quick work with needle, thread, and strips of cloth, she produced a prototype with three horizontal stripes, a green one representing the sea, a brown one standing in for the land, and a blue one symbolizing the sky. Exploring land, sea, and sky: it couldn’t get much simpler.
Later that spring, Grosvenor proudly conferred his new banner upon the Society-sponsored Ziegler Polar Expedition, which then failed miserably in its attempt to reach the North Pole.
It was not an auspicious start. But over the succeeding century that flag’s fortunes have fared much better. As the emblem of the Society’s support for research and exploration, it has been carried by scientists and explorers to every continent, to both of the Poles, to the depths of the sea, to the summit of Mt. Everest—to the ends of the earth, in short, and even beyond, being carried to the moon in 1969 by the astronauts of Apollo Eleven.