America’s Other (Lady) Audubon

Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Genevieve Jones got an early start as a birder. Born in the 1850s, the 6-year old would accompany her father on egg collecting trips to fill the family’s curiosities shelf. She wanted to create a book illustrating different nests and eggs of bird species, but her family discouraged her since producing such a book would be exorbitantly expensive. Her chance finally arrived after her parents broke up her engagement to an alcoholic and encouraged their daughter to pursue the project as a concession to ruining her romantic dreams.

Brain Pickings reviews the new book by Joy M. Kiser, America’s Other Audubon, that tells Gennie’s depressing but inspiring tale:

Family and friends rushed in to support the project and Gennie set out to illustrate the 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio, many common throughout the rest of America.

She would name the book Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, and planned to charge $5 for the hand-painted version or $2 for the uncolored version—what a steal. When the first batch of mailings went out, the project seemed destined for wild success. Indeed, Gennie’s artistic and ornithological gifts might have boosted her to fame rivaling that of the celebrated John James Audubon. But just as things were looking up, tragedy struck.

A mere month after the first part was mailed, she contracted typhoid fever and fell violently ill. On her deathbed, she instructed her brother to keep the project alive and enlist the help of their mother in producing the illustrations. She died on Sunday, August 17, 1879, at the age of thirty-two.

Her suitor promptly killed himself in protest, and her family plummeted into grief. They became obsessed with realizing Gennie’s vision for the book. Her parents took up illustrating the meticulous eggs and nests, despite catching (and surviving) typhoid themselves. In 1886, the book was finally finished.

But the folio-sized treasure was too expensive for almost anyone to afford and, even though Gennie’s father had spend his entire retirement savings of $25,000 to finance the project, not enough copies of the book were sold to offset the production costs. Virginia became temporarily bind for nearly two years, having strained her eyes so severely to complete the work, and the family was on the brink of poverty — but they never complained.

Still, the book eventually found its way to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it was appraised at $80,000. Copies of that labor of love are now for sale, though the hand painted $5 offer has expired.

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