National Geographic Society Maps

Some of the most popular collectible maps are those issued as supplements to National Geographic Magazine. Not only are these maps widely accessible, making it easy to start a collection, they are also universally recognized as outstanding examples of the cartographer’s art.

The National Geographic Society, established in 1888 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., has always been known for the fine maps in its publications, although in its early years, the Society didn’t actually make its own maps; it distributed maps published by government agencies or other map makers. In 1915 the Society formed a map department and ever since has been producing and distributing its own maps. Today it prints millions of copies of each of its maps.

Through about 1920 the maps were lightly glued inside the front cover of the magazine and disbound copies may show traces of this glue. Since that time, the maps have simply been inserted into the magazine.

From the beginning the Society has dated its maps, usually with the month and year of issue, but sometimes with the year alone. In a few cases, the date on the map is different from the date on the magazine. Through the 1942 map of the Pacific Ocean, the maps were folded inside-out, with the blank side showing; consequently, it’s not uncommon to find these earlier maps refolded incorrectly with the printed side out. This misfolding is one type of damage to watch for when adding these maps to your collection. Another type is paper separation along the folds, especially in the earlier maps, which were printed on a thinner paper.

Since the 1960’s it has been standard to print on both sides of the paper, and text, artwork and photographs often accompany the maps. In a few cases, the magazine supplements are not maps at all, such as the June 1989 pictorial on dinosaurs or the September 1973 sheet on outer space. And in a few other cases, the Society has issued maps that were not included with the magazine. Examples include maps issued with various books the Society has published, maps offered for sale separately, such as the December 1960 map of the U.S.S.R., and maps such as the July 1944 large-format “Germany and Its Approaches – for use by War and Navy Department Agencies only; not for sale or distribution.”

You should generally be able to find copies of National Geographic Society maps in very good to excellent condition. Often, these maps have remained safely tucked inside the magazine and if they’ve been stored in a dry, bug-free environment, should be in fine shape. With care and patience, misfolded maps can be correctly refolded; it’s helpful to have an example on hand to use as a model. Even when these maps were removed from the magazine, they’re usually in reasonably good condition; these maps were typically not put to the same type of use (or abuse) as road and highway maps.

Generally, and not surprisingly, the older National Geographic Society maps are worth more than the newer ones. Far fewer were issued – and even fewer have survived. Values reflect this scarcity and a copy of the October 1898 “The Gold and Coal Fields of Alaska” would set you back at least $100, if you can find one. All of the other maps from the years 1892-1905 are also rare and will cost between $50 and $75 apiece.

Titles between 1906 and 1918 are also desirable and hard to find; retail prices may run between $10 and $25 apiece.

From 1921 onward the maps become noticeably more plentiful and prices will be lower – and tend to vary more widely from dealer to dealer. On average, titles from the 20’s and 30’s run $6 each; one exception is the April 1939 “Reaches of New York City,” which was displayed in the governor’s office on the TV show Benson and commands a bit more. Maps from the early 40’s usually can sell for $5 apiece, largely because of their tie-in with the Second World War. Another popular – and similarly priced – war map is the April 1961 “Battlefields of the Civil War.”

From the 50’s onwards, one map dealer may ask $3 for a given title and another one may only want a buck, but if you don’t mind poking through thrift shops, flea markets and garage sales, you can usually find these newer maps for 25 cents – or less – apiece, although there’s no guarantee you’ll locate the title you’re looking for. You can also contact the National Geographic Society itself; their current catalog lists for more than 60 of their most recent and best-selling maps – for $7.95 apiece plus shipping and handling.

Checklist of Supplemental Maps Issued by National Geographic Magazine

[Note: The date at left is the issue in which the map appeared; in a few cases the date actually printed on the map may be different. In its first half-dozen years the National Geographic Magazine was published on an “occasional” basis. (AP = Atlas Plate)

1889

Oct – Asheville District

1892

Mar 21 – Muir Glacier

Mar 31 – United States

1893

Apr 7 – Nuremburg Chronicle Map, 1493; Juan de la Cosa Map, 1500; Ruysch Map, 1508

1896

Jan – Russia in Europe

Feb – The Orinoco River

Mar – Submarine Cables of the World

Oct – Nansen Explorations

1898

Mar – The Gold and Coal Fields of Alaska

May – Cuba

1899

Jun – Theater of Military Operations in Luzon

Jul – Region Adjacent to the Nicaragua Canal Route

Aug – South Polar Regions

Nov – Vancouver’s Chart No. 1, Vancouver’s Chart No. 2

Dec – Seat of War in Africa

1900

Jan – Philippine Islands as the Geographical Center of the Far East

Sep – Northeastern China

1902

Jan – The Philippines (Two maps)