National Geographic Society
Read Caption

The first issue of National Geographic in 1888 contained no photographs and cost 50 cents.

National Geographic Society

Here's What Was in the First Issue of 'National Geographic' Magazine

Our inaugural issue, published 128 years ago today, was a very different read.

On this day 128 years ago, the National Geographic Society published the very first issue of its magazine, a mere eight months after the society was established with the purpose "to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge."

Volume One, Number One of National Geographic, printed in New Haven, Connecticut, with a cover price of 50 cents, was a very staid affair. Its chestnut brown paper cover lacked the distinctive yellow border (that wouldn't appear until 1910), and not a single photograph was included within its 98 pages (that wouldn't happen until 1905).

The six articles included in the issue were originally papers presented in biweekly meetings held by the Society—initially at New York's Columbia University and later at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.—between February and May 1888.

As with any fledgling member publication, most of the content was written "in-house," so to speak, with five of National Geographic's 33 founding members—and three present or future Society presidents—providing articles to Volume One, Number One. While steadfastly academic in tone, they nonetheless convey the enthusiasm for science and exploration that the magazine continues to celebrate 128 years later.

Here are highlights from the contents of Volume One, Issue One:

Page 3: "Introductory Address"

The National Geographic Society's first president, Gardiner G. Hubbard, confesses that he is "not a scientific man" in the very first sentence of his address. "I possess only the same general interest in the subject of geography that should be felt by every educated man," he adds.

Page 11: "Geographic Methods in Geologic Investigation," by W.M. Davis

Considered the father of American geography, society member William Morris Davis introduced an influential theory on the cycle of erosion ("young" and "old" landscapes), which he lays out in thorough detail in National Geographic's first feature.

Davis also takes time to bemoan the lack of geographic knowledge among the public: "It makes one grieve to think of the opportunity for mental enjoyment that is lost because of the failure of education in this respect."

Page 27: "The Classification of Geographic Forms by Genesis," by W.J. McGee

Future Society president William John McGee (1904-1905) served as a geologist for the United States Geological Survey as well as the head ethnologist of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

McGee's first article for the magazine was an academic treatise on how to classify geographic phenomena, which he apparently took great pleasure in listing at length, including "volcanoes, craters, calderas, lava fields, tuff fields, tufa crags, mesas" and "moraines, drumlins, kames, roches de moutonnées, rock basins, kettles, lacustral plains, aqueo-glacial terraces, loess hills and plains, etc."

Page 37: "The Great Storm of March 11-14, 1888"

The Great Storm of 1888 is considered "the deadliest, snowiest, and most unusual winter storm in American annals," dumping more than five feet of snow in parts of New York, and leaving more than 400 dead.

The three-page summary of remarks provided by Society founding member Adolphus Greely, however, characterize it as "no means as violent as others which have occurred in the eastern part of the United States," and go on to provide a cut-and dry account of the progress of the storm across the country.

Brigadier General Greely, however, had already seen much, much worse. As leader of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881, Greely survived a three-year struggle in the Arctic involving two failed resupply attempts, the loss of two-thirds of his crew, and accusations of cannibalism.

Page 40: "The Great Storm Off the Atlantic Coast of the United States, March 11th-14th, 1888," by Everett Hayden

Another founding member of the National Geographic Society, Hayden headed the division of marine meteorology in the U.S. Navy's Hydrographic Office. His account of the Great Storm provides the liveliest narrative found in the issue:

"[A]board scores of vessels, from the little fishing-schooner and pilot-boat to the great transatlantic liner, a life-or-death struggle with the elements is being waged, with heroism none the less real because it is in self-defence, and none the less admirable because it cannot always avert disaster."

Page 59: "The Survey of the Coast," by Herbert G. Ogden

One of National Geographic's "least-known" founding members, Ogden worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the predecessor to today's National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a system of coordinates defining the territory of the United States.

Ogden's article summarizes the history of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which he obviously held in extremely high esteem, concluding that "when history shall record its awards to our people, there will be no page of the galaxy with more honor than that which bears tribute to the genius of American Science [sic], in the work of the Coast Survey."

Page 78: "The Survey and Map of Massachusetts," by Henry Gannett

Founding member and future Society president (1910-1914) Henry Gannett has been characterized as a "man of reports" and "a literary trip-hammer" whose "writings lacked...personal flavor."

Considered the father of topographic mapping, Gannett's article on the process of topographically mapping the state of Massachusetts is certainly the product of a man of reports. We learn what was included in the mapping (post offices, public canals), what was left out (fences, various kinds of crops), how the mapping was recorded (with several different forms of plane table), and the average cost per square mile of the survey ($13).