The woman who shaped National Geographic
Pioneering journalist Eliza Scidmore was the magazine's first official female writer, photographer, and board member.
In 1883, Eliza Scidmore hopped on a mail steamer to Alaska. Tired of society life in Washington, D.C., she was inspired by the dramatic scenery described by naturalist John Muir in the San Francisco Bulletin. The uncharted northern tundra had been purchased from Russia in the 1860s, but few Americans had yet visited it. The intrepid 27-year-old writer and photographer decided to see it for herself.
Every morning Scidmore would rise at 6 for coffee and rolls, then spend the day viewing auroras and writing letters. “It’s a watercolor country,” she later described it to an interviewer.
The articles about Alaska that she published in American newspapers captivated the public and impressed the day’s great explorers. When she compiled them into a book of travelogues—perhaps the first ever written about Alaska—a reviewer called her “one of the best women correspondents in the country.”
In the decades after that Alaskan journey, Scidmore became a household name to readers of National Geographic magazine, producing 15 articles and some of the journal’s first color photography. She’s considered the first female writer and photographer to be published in National Geographic, and the first women elected to its board. Over nearly two decades of involvement with the National Geographic Society, she held positions as an associate editor, secretary, and foreign secretary.
Though women were sparsely represented in the Society, Scidmore was admired by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, National Geographic’s first president, and Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the first editor. Both sought her advice while developing the magazine. By advocating for more color photography, she helped influence and transform the young academic journal.
In The Beginning
Eliza Scidmore was born in 1856 in Madison, Wisconsin. Soon after, her family moved to Washington, D.C., where her mother ran a boarding house and claimed to know every president from Lincoln to Taft.
These connections became useful later in life for Scidmore, who dreamed of travel. In the 1870s, women were just starting to be hired by newspapers as correspondents; Scidmore was among the first. She published her first series of columns in the National Republican newspaper at age 19, then wrote about Washington society for various papers, including The New York Times.
Since she sometimes wrote under the name “E.R. Scidmore” or “E. Ruhamah Scidmore,” many readers assumed she was male. Letters addressed to her began “Dear Sir.” Book reviewers praised the works of “Mr. Scidmore.”
Scidmore was so prolific that she earned $1,000—the equivalent of $26,000 today— during a single week in the 1880s. According to a newspaper item, she used the funds to fulfill her childhood wanderlust.
Scidmore was infatuated with Japan, which had recently opened itself to western visitors. Her brother held a diplomatic post there, and through him she plugged in to the social scene.
Scidmore began writing dispatches from Japan. She admired the high status of Japanese women in Harper’s Bazaar, wrote about teapots for The Cosmopolitan Magazine, and analyzed the differences between Japanese and Chinese chopsticks. In an article for American Farmer about Japanese silkworms, she reverentially described the caterpillars as “delicately-reared aristocrats.”
She returned to Washington, D.C., with photographs of cherry blossom trees— “the most beautiful thing in the world” —and began petitioning President Grover Cleveland’s administration to plant them along the Tidal Basin.
Born to Travel
Traveling, Scidmore told an interviewer in 1890, “must have been ‘born in me,’ like the original sin.” She recalled that as a child she studied maps and geography. “My daydreams were always of other countries.”
That year she joined the National Geographic Society—then a two-year-old organization seeking to gather the era’s luminaries of science and exploration. She was one of only a dozen female members. Two years later, an all-male board unanimously elected her the Society’s corresponding secretary.
Scidmore brought in explorers and diplomats for the Society’s burgeoning lecture circuit. She also made speeches herself on subjects such as the Far East and Alaska, which she visited at least five times. Muir so admired her that he used her middle name to christen Mount Ruhamah—there’s also a Scidmore Glacier and a Scidmore Island—and maintained a correspondence with her for years.
“I wasn’t sold on Mt. Everest,” she once wrote to Muir. “For after starting in the middle of the night twice to go up ... and see the sun rise over it, what did I see as the biggest, highest thing on earth? A little white nub of a thing off on the sky line, just a size larger than my thumb. I’ll back my Mt. Ruhamah against it any time when it’s snow on.”
In the late 1890s, Hubbard asked Scidmore for her opinion of the young National Geographic magazine. She responded that she had been studying similar European publications, and based on their work, thought the Geographic could use “some shaking up.”
“It is a splendid beginning and a marked advance upon what we had before,” she wrote, “but we need to have it make another leap and become a full-fledged, serious standard magazine of geographic literature.”
A 10-year-old groom (right), and a girl who could be his bride, travel on a palanquin—a float carried by bearers—during a wedding procession in India.
The shake-up arrived as pictures.
The first photograph in the magazine’s text-crammed pages appeared in 1890. But it wasn’t until 1905—when Grosvenor packed 11 pages with the first photographs of Lhasa, Tibet—that pictures become the magazine’s centerpiece. A few months later, Grosvenor published 138 photos of the Philippines; the next year, he devoted a whole issue to wildlife and nature photography.
Thanks to these moves, membership increased from 3,000 to 20,000 in just two years.
In the 1890s, the organization that is now the Smithsonian Institution gave Scidmore a Kodak camera to document her travels across India, Japan, China, and the Indonesian island of Java. She is likely National Geographic’s first female photographer. (Photographs attributed to her appear alongside her stories, but early records don’t clarify which photos she took and which she commissioned.)
In 1909 she wrote to Grosvenor: “[W]hy not buy a piece of color photography printing? It’s coming to stay and you might as well take a first flyer on some of the red and yellow temples among green trees with snow on the ground … ”
He wrote back: “[I] would not dare to attempt to reproduce them in colors unless you were here to direct the engraver. I have been for a long time anxious to have some colored work, but the proper subjects have not yet materialized.”
Color photography didn’t regularly appear in the magazine for a few years. It was extremely expensive, for one thing, and the Society’s board worried that it would dilute the magazine’s substance. But Grosvenor was determined to expand his journal, and Scidmore—who had started producing the color photography from her far-flung bases in Asia—was an asset.
“We miss you very much this winter,” Grosvenor wrote to Scidmore in 1910. “You were always so full of ideas and suggestions and you really ought to live here permanently. The purpose of this letter is to call your attention particularly to our innovation of colored pictures and to inquire whether you cannot help us to secure other series like these.”
Scidmore quickly complied, sending Grosvenor a batch of photos of women and children with the note: “I have had them made uniform in size and strongly colored so that you can cover yourself all over with glory with another number in color and thereby catch a few thousand more subscribers. It is that that seems to strike the average subscriber hardest, after the [stingy] way the great metropolitan magazines dole out their colored samples.”
A woman comforts a child fearful of cold bathwater. Scidmore's 1914 article "Young Japan" was the second series she wrote and photographed about women and children in Asia.
The 11 images printed in a 1914 spread titled “Young Japan” were some of the magazine’s first color photographs. The issue also contained the first autochrome, or natural-color, photograph. Though National Geographic wouldn’t put pictures on its cover until 1959, these “16 Pages of 4-Color Work” were proudly advertised on the front of the magazine. (The Geographic later published the first underground, underwater, and aerial color photographs as well.)
Scidmore received $450—$10,000 today—for the series. The fee, Grosvenor told her, was "very much more than we have ever paid for photographs before." He consistently paid higher-than-standard rates for her photos and words. “Photos splendid," read a cable he sent to Scidmore. "Secure colored Korean [and] Chinese. More Japanese people.”
Grosvenor offered a few tips in a letter: “[W]hat we want particularly is life and action in the photographs. A smiling baby is better than one whose face is in repose. People doing things, moving or running, are usually, but not always, more interesting than persons resting quietly.”
Life, and Death, Abroad
Scidmore lived on and off in Japan, serving as an ambassador of goodwill for the U.S. and receiving a royal honor for her service: the Order of the Sacred Crown. Yet she maintained her close ties to the Society and frequently corresponded with Grosvenor.
“I hope I shall not miss the wrestling match for the N. Pole …” she wrote in 1909 about the race in the Arctic pitting explorer Robert Peary against Dr. Frederick Cook.
In 1916, when the Society’s treasurer mistakenly sent her a “last notice” for overdue fees, she wrote to Grosvenor, asking him to “kindly throw him down stairs at the finish."
By that point, the Society had 500,000 members, and Grosvenor was finding it difficult to keep up. But, he wrote, “I assure you that the National Geographic Society would not feel entirely on a sound foundation if your name were not continued on its roll of honor.”
Scidmore become involved in World War I, then moved to Geneva to write about the newly founded League of Nations. She outfitted her house with a lifetime of souvenirs—including the throne seat of China’s empress dowager—and it quickly became a gathering spot for diplomats.
A young Tamil girl in India is adorned in jewelry and silk. "For weddings, jewels are often [rented] by both families," Scidmore wrote in her caption, "and children of the slums wear eight and ten necklaces, the bracelets and jewels of a temple idol for one day only."
In 1928, at age 72, she developed appendicitis and was hospitalized with complications. It was “a very poor, slow business, and you can imagine how disarranging to all my plans,” she wrote in a postcard. She was not a willing patient, it seemed. A cousin who was by her side cabled back to America that she “refuses food” and “fights remedies.”
Eliza Scidmore died early on the morning of November 3, 1928. Her ashes were buried in Japan, along with her brother and mother.
A Lasting Legacy
Sadly, Scidmore’s correspondence files in the National Geographic archives are slim. After her death, a close friend requested that all her letters be destroyed. Her cousin complied, writing that “I had been told their correspondence was one in which they wrote the most secret of things.”
Upon her death, a newspaper in her home state of Wisconsin wrote, “It is probable, and indeed has been conceded in Europe and this country, that no American woman had a more cosmopolitan assembly of friends or more varied interests of work than Miss Skidmore [sic] has enjoyed.”
But Scidmore’s place in history has been largely forgotten. Diana Parsell, who is writing Scidmore’s biography, believes that in an era when women’s lives were written as footnotes in their husbands’ stories, the pioneering journalist slipped into obscurity in part because she never married.
Unwitting springtime visitors to Washington keep Scidmore’s legacy alive. After her first trip to Japan, in 1885, she spent nearly three decades—and six administrations—lobbying to plant cherry blossom trees along the waterfront. She was there in 1912 when First Lady Helen Taft planted the first of 3,000 trees.
Today, those trees draw 1.5 million tourists annually. “I always recall,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in Reader’s Digest, “that we are indebted for this magnificent spectacle to the energy and vision of one American, Miss Eliza Scidmore.”