Naturalist Book Nook
America’s Other Audubon by Joy Kiser
Written by Penny Warren
As a young girl in Ohio in the 1850’s, Genevieve ‘Gennie’ Estelle Jones accompanied her father, a doctor and an amateur naturalist/ornithologist, throughout the countryside on his medical visits and they collected nests and eggs for their family’s natural history cabinet. Gennie was extremely bright, a good artist (no formal training) and grew up in a very tight knit family. One day she found a nest she could not identify and thought she would look through the family library for a nest identification book but her father informed her that none existed.
The family discussed many times the need for such a book. Approaching thirty years of age, Gennie, suffering from a broken heart due to an engagement denied by her parents, traveled to visit friends near Philadelphia and attended the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition and saw some of the colored engravings from Audubon’s The Birds of America. Gennie noted that even with Audubon, very few nests were included in his work. Returning to Ohio and remaining despondent, her brother, Howard, with parental encouragement, suggested to Gennie to pursue her proposed idea of illustrating the nests and eggs of American birds missing from ornithological literature. It was later determined to focus on the birds (130) found in Ohio.
Her father, carrying a heavy heart because of his position related to her engagement, agreed to finance the project and developed a business plan to produce one hundred copies of Gennie’s book, The Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. It was agreed that the nests and eggs would be drawn true to size, colored by hand with imported Winsor & Newton watercolors, and printed on Watman’s Hotpressed Antiquarian paper, the same brand of paper that Audubon used for his illustrations because it retained its bright white color indefinitely.
Gennie and her closest friend, Eliza Shulze, learned lithography and began to draw the illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of 65 pound lithographic stones! The stones were shipped 89 miles to Cincinnati to the Adolph Krebs Lithographic Company. When errors were found, the stones were re-crated and shipped back to Gennie. It took several tries to get everything just so for the printing process. Her father agreed to write the field notes for each of the illustrations.
The first subscribers received their copies of the first three lithographs during July 1879 and gave very favorable responses. The artwork of Gennie and Eliza was praised as equal to, or even better, than Audubon. Subscribers included former President Rutherford B. Hayes and then Harvard College student Theodore Roosevelt. Gennie and Eliza were overwhelmed with the hand colored orders as it took sometimes four days to complete just one nest. One month after part one of the book was published, Gennie came down with typhoid fever and died several weeks later, age thirty two. She had only completed five of the illustrations. Her family was grief stricken but in some time her mother, Virginia, as a way of honoring Gennie’s memory, decided that she would complete the project ….. which took eight years! Eliza had lost interest in the project but she taught Virginia the lithographic techniques. The American Ornithologists Union met in 1917 and celebrated the seventieth birthdays of members who had been born in 1847, the name of seven individuals who had not lived long enough to reach the milestone but who had made significant contributions in the realm of ornithology and Miss Genevieve Estelle Jones was on the list.
Only 26 complete, hand-colored copies and eight uncolored, or incomplete copies of Gennie’s book have been located in the US and abroad. A copy owned by the Cleveland Museum was appraised in 1998 at $80,000. Fast forward to 1995 and the author, Joy Kiser, a librarian, was a new employee at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Volume One of The Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was in a Plexiglas display case for several weeks. Ms. Kiser was intrigued by all of it…. the photo of Gennie, the story of an eight year family project and this led her on a 17 year path that culminated in this book.
There are so, so many more details to the story, of Gennie and her family; I can not do adequate justice in a brief article to the Jones’ family and now by Ms. Kiser and how both of the projects came into being. It is a remarkable story and a beautiful book to behold!
(Ms. Warren is a naturalist and bird enthusiast living in Staunton, Virginia and serves as a volunteer for the annual North American Butterfly Association count)