Blavatsky and The Theosophist

Part 3

A physical description of the magazine and and the circumstances surrounding its inception:

First printed in a 9 in. (23 cm)  by 13 in (33 cm) quarto format, the premier edition of The Theosophist, published in October of 1879, ran long, filling an expansive thirty-two double columned pages as opposed to the twenty pages promised in the original prospectus. A notice on the initial page asserts that the first run was printed by Cooper & Co., a bookseller and publisher from Bombay (The Theosophist. October 1879, p. 1). Mary Neff, in an article celebrating the 50th anniversary ‘Jubilee’ of the first edition, entitled “The Hidden Side of ‘The Theosophist’,” gives a timeline of the production process. 

The Cover of the First Issue as reproduced in the ‘Jubilee’ edition.

Having decided the matter on July 4th, 1879, as a work saving device to replace the intense correspondence they maintained with their followers, the co-founders Olcott and Blavatsky produced a finished proof of their Prospectus for The Theosophist by the 9th of July. Concerning the decision, Olcott wrote: “we were driven to it by the necessity of meeting the growing interest in Theosophy” (Olcott, 1900, p. 93). A cover was designed for the publication by the end of the month, and by late August the duo was putting the final revisions on their articles for publication. Having had the masthead started by their artist friend Edward Wimbridge by September 2nd, they ran off their first 8 page form by the 20th of that month. By the 30th they had produced their first run of the paper, which ran to 400 copies. (Neff, 1929) It would take a long time for the paper to grow, but by 1911 the paper had a circulation of 4000, and is still in publication until present. (Theosophy Wiki. The Theosophist (periodical), n.d.).

A telling short notice in this initial issue relates some of the ‘mechanical difficulties’ they underwent with the first printing. The would-be publishers were unable to find appropriate wooden blocks for the engraving of the masthead and failed at lithography as well. They were then equally frustrated in attempting to acquire color printing. After it was requested, the printers responded by advising them to send their job to London. It is possible that they had high expectations. “As a last resort we determined to print the design in relief… the artist was forced to invent an entirely novel process to etch on it, and to execute the work himself” (The Theosophist, October 1879, p. 2). Elsewhere, Mme Blavastsky notes the shortage of Hebrew, Greek, and other exotic type, suggesting phonetic representation of such languages to facilitate printing. 

In the same note the intellectual freedom policy of the paper is given, stating that individual members of the Theosophical Society are free to hold whatever view concerning religion that they deem appropriate, and asserting their right to express those views in the magazine. Confusingly, she then abjures, however, any attempt to misappropriate the magazine for the purpose of propaganda. “It is designed that a strict impartiality shall be observed in the editorial utterances; the paper representing the whole Theosophical Society, or Universal Brotherhood, and not any single section. The Society being neither a church nor a sect in any sense…” (October 1879:, p. 2), the ultimate decision on appropriate religious content apparently being thus left to the editors.

In February of 1883, the printing moved from Bombay to Madras, as per the Theosophy Wiki and substantiated by comparison between the mastheads of the January and February issues that year. The change of venue was otherwise unnoted.

Part 4: Historical Context