Once, as a child, I received a gift subscription of the National Geographic Magazine. Then, I was pretty happy to be member of a society and receive a magazine in the mail every month. The photographs in the magazine were also great; so good in fact that I rarely read the text. After the gift subscription ended, my parents continued with it as they felt it was “educational”. This was in the 1980s and door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen were making a killing.

After a couple more years of subscribing, my parents finally stopped. The “educational” magazines were beginning to pile up and we hardly even flipped through the pages of an issue before putting it in the storeroom. We kept those stacks of magazines for a long while, thinking that the treasure trove of information there would come in useful…one day. When that day never came, my mother sold the lot to a karang guni.

My love for the yellow-bordered magazine was only rekindled a few years ago when I was working on a historical exhibition. I was sourcing for old photographs of Singapore and kept coming up with the same old images in the National Archives’ database. By chance, I found some scans from a magazine with some well-taken but rarely used images of Singapore, and traced them to a cover story in the March 1926 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.

We did not have time to license the images for the exhibition but I was sufficiently intrigued to do a search on eBay and pick up a copy of the magazine for myself. The purchase was well worth the trouble and money. “Singapore, Crossroads of the East” was the cover story and it held wonderful images of pre-war Singapore. Such photographs, mind you, are pretty rare. If you look at most Singapore history books of the colonial period they are typically bereft of images.

The text is also interesting. Written from a colonialist’s perspective, Singapore’s “success” then was of course attributed to the colonizer. On the first page, the author declared “And, in all the swift significant changes wrought by white men in the East, no one event stands out more conspicuously than the rapid rise of Singapore. From a jungle isle, where tigers ate men at night, to a magnificent city, tenth among the ports of the world, in less than a century!”

My delight with this buy led to purchases of other Nat Geo issues, and I even extended my search to other “western” magazines who had covered our tiny island state. These magazines now have pride of place in our collection as a source of history, and the insight they give on western perceptions of our country. ~ Stephanie

Historical notes:

The first issue of the National Geographic Magazine was published on 22 September 1888. Learn more here

Only the early National Geographic magazines, ie. those published before 1907 have any serious monetary value. Read more here

Now there’s no need to keep back copies of your Nat Geo magazines. Every issue is now digitally available (of course for a fee) at the National Geographic Archive.

National Geographic Magazine, March 1926
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