SMC -- History of Geography: AAG President's Column

The item below is from the AAG Newsletter Volume 31 Number 10. It is reprinted here with permission from the President of the Association, Prof. Lawrence Brown.

Continuity and Change: Geographical Societies: The mid-to late-1800s.

Science became a broad-based ethos in North America and Europe; confidence and excitement reigned; elements of transition from an agrarian to industrial society. The renaissance scientist was still the norm; specialization, and its narrowing scope, was decades in the future. Opportunities for geographical discovery abounded--the arctic poles, Africa, Asia, parts of Latin America--also the ocean, the lithosphere, the moon! And, while these endeavors gripped the fascination of many strata of society, there also emerged people who could afford to participate, directly or vicariously--wealthy philanthropists and a burgeoning middle class.

Geographical societies flourished, popularizing our science--Paris, 1821; Berlin, 1828; London, 1830; Mexico City, 1833; Rio de Janeiro, 1838--and in 1851, the American Geographical Society of New York. Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society, 1851-1951 (J. Kirtland Wright, American Geographical Society, 1952) states "The blossoming of geographical societies was part of a change in the whole aspect of Western civilization. After the Napoleonic Wars, the progress of scientific discovery, of technical invention, and of education caused a rapid increase in the quantity and variety of occupations and interests of all kinds...also of unions, societies, and associations representing them. ...the railway,...steamship, ...improvement of postal services and publication [facilities], were free to roam the world in mind and body. Energies...were now released for widespread commercial and colonial ventures...the settlement of remote frontiers...geographical discovery and exploration were their accompaniment." (pp.7-8)

On a more personal note, Geography in the Making tells us that "Membership in the Society enables [one] to meet other gentlemen with kindred tastes, to listen to geographical lectures and take part in lively discussions...[George Knickerbocker notes] so far as one can tell from this map, the best route for the railroad would run from... the distances are so tremendous...he wonders whether the whole proposition is not an idle dream. But it doesn't seem so long ago that maps of this region were mostly blank... When he was a boy, the United States stopped at the Mississippi. Then came the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clarke's wonderful journey...which step-by-step have filled in the blank spaces...he swells with pride...that the stars and stripes now wave over California" (pp.8-9). Also, "On or near Washington Square stood other institutions of learning--the Union Theological Seminary, the General Theological Seminary, the new Free Academy (later...called the College of the City of New York), the New York Society Library" (p.6). This was a time of cultural-institution building--museums, libraries, colleges, theaters, parks, and--learned societies. But it also was a time when organizations such as nineteenth-century geographical societies were motivated to urge "the execution of geographical projects conceived for the benefit of the United States, from the building of the railways and the cutting of the Panama Canal, to the provision of adequate charts for aerial navigation." (M. Aurousseau, review of Geography in the Making, Geographical Review, nd). Indeed, geographical societies and their principals were active players in, and often shaped, current events of the day; Isaiah Bowman is only one example. The brewpots of geographical societies and US history, intertwined.

The National Geographic Society emerged a quarter-century later, in 1888 (The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery. C.D.B. Bryan, Harry N. Abrams, 1987). It had an egalitarian ideal, "to increase and diffuse...geographical knowledge ...[to] any interested citizen" (p.27). While early National Geographics were more scientific, detached, and with a tinge of judgement and polemic, it almost immediately moved toward the more popular format we know today (pp.28-29)--tapping the market created by "emergence of a vast, educated, ambitious middle class (generated by the increasingly sophisticated, expanding public-school systems and easier access to colleges and universities)"...(p.83).

Other nineteenth societies still existing include the Geographical Society of Philadelphia (1891, now 'Greater Philadelphia') and Geographic Society of Chicago (1898). Though more modest than the AGS and NGS, these also supported exploration, sponsored travel excursions, held public lectures (e.g., "Adventures in the Antarctic" by Shackleton, "Our Airplane Dash for the North Pole" by Amundsen), created library collections, and awarded Medals--to explorers such as Amundsen, Byrd, Costeau, Glenn, Hillary, Peary; writers such as Michener; academic and institutional geographers such as Bowman, Colby, Goode, Grosvenor, Huntington, Lattimore, Salisbury.

New geographical societies appeared after World War II; among those on which I have information is the California Geographic Society. Founded in 1946, it is strongly oriented toward geographic education in K-12 and community college settings; these professionals dominate its membership, and the organization serves a large number of venues and people throughout the state. The Florida Society of Geographers was founded in 1964. Its concern with field trips and research on Florida has been broadened by close linkage with the Florida Geographic Alliance. Judging by the one meeting I serendipitously attended, this is a group of academic and applied geographers (and educators) from throughout the state who value an opportunity to associate with one another. The New Mexico Geographical Society, of more recent origin, largely involves a lecture series. Elliot McIntire writes "There is also the Los Angeles Geographical Society, founded ca. 1950, which is more like the 19th century Geographical Societies. Most members are not professional geographers (although the officers are) but community members with an interest in travel, [field trips], and seeing slide shows of exotic places."

Another organization is a class by itself; The Society of Women Geographers, founded in 1925 by "four New York--all recognized explorers" (Society Brochure). This national organization has seven local chapters in New York and Washington (the original two), Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Seattle. It carries out an active fellowship program for "young women studying for advanced degrees" (>100); has awarded Gold Medals to Amelia Earhart, Jane Goodall, Mary Leakey, Margaret Mead, and Kathryn Sullivan; and "the Society's flag has been [carried by] active members [to] geographical horizons, including the depths of the ocean, the South Pole, and outer space."

Geographical societies are an interesting and vital part of our heritage. They emanated from a new age of science, exploration, and democratization of knowledge. These elements remain, but over time, travel and education have moved to center stage. Especially important is the tremendous role of these societies in K-12 geography, including particularly the Geography Alliance and Geography for Life movements. The academy has been a constant, albeit changing, ingredient. Pre-World War II societies have been critiqued for presenting an ethnocentric view of the world, but they've been a vibrant and indispensable medium for popularizing geography. Geographical societies provide testimony that Geography has been, and remains, exciting--for ourselves as professionals, but also for the public at large. Continuity and change.