Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor and the National Geographic Society

October 28, 1875 marks the birth date of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the editor credited with transforming National Geographic MagazineExternal from a small scholarly journal into a dynamic world-renowned monthly. Born in Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey, Grosvenor’s family immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen, where he became an honor student, eventually studying at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Grosvenor joined the magazine in 1899 as an assistant editor.

National Geographic Society. Exterior of National Geographic Society. Theodor Horydczak, photographer; [Washington, D.C.], ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Gilbert Grosvenor was recommended for the position by a friend of his father’s, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was at the time, president of the National Geographic Society. Bell became his father-in-law shortly thereafter when, in 1900, Grosvenor wed Bell’s daughter, Elsie May. Four years after joining National Geographic, Grosvenor took over as editor-in-chief and in 1920, he was elected president of the the society. Grosvenor filled the dual roles of editor of the magazine and president of the society until 1954, when he resigned to become chairman of the board, a position he held until his death in 1966.

[Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, head of National Geographic Society, by Bain News Service, New York]. [1927]. Bain Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The National Geographic Society was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1888 to support “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The society’s founders, an eclectic group of well-traveled men, considered a magazine one means of accomplishing this mission. They published the first National Geographic nine months after forming the organization.

Detail of Family Tree of Gilbert Grosvenor and Elsie May Bell. Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. Manuscript Division

In its early years, National Geographic was a journal with a plain cover and a circulation of less than one thousand. Under Grosvenor’s leadership, the magazine developed its extraordinary photographic service and map department, ultimately boosting membership from 900 in 1899 to more than 2 million at the time of his retirement in 1955.

During Grosvenor’s tenure, using revenues from the magazine, the society sponsored many notable expeditions and research projects including Admiral Robert Peary‘s 1909 expedition to the North Pole; Hiram Bingham’s 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu, and William Beebe’s record-setting undersea descent in 1934. The National Geographic Society continues this tradition, and has sponsored more than 8,000 research projects and more than 500 expeditions around the globe. Richly illustrated within the magazine, these explorations of land, air, and sea have introduced millions of people to amazing new worlds.

Today, the National Geographic SocietyExternal is the largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization of its kind. In addition to publishing its flagship magazine, the society produces a wide array of educational materials and programs. The subject of many of these is the conservation and protection of wildlife, causes long championed by Gilbert H. Grosvenor.

Books. Bound Volume 54 of National Geographic Magazine. Theodor Horydczak, photographer; ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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Temperance and Prohibition

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act providing for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified nine months earlier. Known as the Prohibition Amendment, it prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

We have only to look about us in this great city, to observe the traces of the deadly influence of intemperance. Everywhere, we face crime, disease and death, all testify to the necessity of the prosecution of the cause, of steadfast and unwavering effort and prompt action to lead to complete success.

[Address by Charles C. Burleigh]. In The Whole World’s Temperance Convention. [Metropolitan Hall, NYC, Sept. 1-2, 1853] New York: Fowler and Wells, 1853. p. 10. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Unidentified Woman, Half-length Portrait, Facing Front, Holding a Copy of the Book “Sons of Temperance Offering” for 1851. ca. 1851. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

The movement to prohibit alcohol began in the early years of the nineteenth century when individuals concerned about the adverse effects of drink began forming local societies to promote temperance in the consumption of alcohol. Some of the earliest temperance societies were organized in New York (1808) and Massachusetts (1813). Many of the members of these societies belonged to Protestant evangelical denominations and eventually organized religion played a significant role in the movements. As time passed, most temperance societies began to call for complete abstinence from all alcoholic beverages.

The Anti-Saloon League, founded in Ohio in 1893 and organized as a national society in 1895, helped pave the way for passage of the Eighteenth Amendment with an effective campaign calling for prohibition at the state level. Their success is reflected by the fact that as of January 1920, thirty-three states had already enacted laws prohibiting alcohol. Between 1920 and 1933, the Anti-Saloon League lobbied for strict federal enforcement of the Volstead Act.

Sixteenth Convention, Anti-Saloon League of America at Atlantic City, N.J., July 6-9, 1915. Thomas Sparrow, photographer,July 1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded by reformer and educator Frances Willard in 1883, mobilized thousands of women in the fight for temperance.

I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went DryExternal. Words by Lew Brown; Music by Albert Von Tilzer; New York: Broadway Music, 1919. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries

Willard also worked for women’s suffrage, as did many other women who found their political awareness expanded by involvement in the temperance crusade. Given their political and economic vulnerability, nineteenth-century women’s lives were easily devastated if the men they depended on “took to drink.” Famous for attacking saloons with a hatchet, Carry Nation’s flamboyant activism evolved from her upbringing in an atmosphere of strong religious beliefs and a failed marriage to an alcoholic. Although few embraced Nation’s extreme stance, Prohibition was viewed by many as a progressive social reform that would improve and protect the lives of women and children.

The Volstead Act ultimately failed to prevent the large-scale production, importation, and sale of liquor in the United States, and the Prohibition Amendment was repealed in 1933.

U.S. Officials Destroying Liquor at the Brownsville Customs HouseExternal. Robert Runyon, photographer, December 20, 1920. Runyon (Robert) Photograph CollectionExternal. Briscoe Center for American History: University of Texas/Austin

Taken from Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies, the following recording from the early 1920s lampoons Prohibition.

Dinnie Donohoe, on Prohibition. Performed by William Cahill, Orange, N.J: Edison, 1921.

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