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Jacob Riis in 1906
|Born||May 3, 1849|
Ribe , Denmark
|Died||May 26, 1914 (aged 65)|
Barre , Massachusetts , U.S.
|Known for||Social reform , journalism , photography|
Jacob August Riis ( // ; May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) was a Danish-American social reformer , ” muckraking ” journalist and social documentary photographer . He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City ; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. He endorsed the implementation of “model tenements ” in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller . Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his very early adoption of flash in photography .
While living in New York, Riis experienced poverty and became a police reporter writing about the quality of life in the slums. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their living conditions to the middle and upper classes.
- 1 Biography
- 1.1 Early life
- 1.2 Migration to the United States
- 1.3 Early journalism
- 1.4 Years at the Tribune
- 1.5 Photography
- 1.6 Public speaking
- 1.7 Books
- 1.8 Theodore Roosevelt
- 1.9 Public works
- 1.10 Later life
- 2 Social attitudes
- 3 Criticism
- 4 Memorials
- 4.1 Veneration
- 5 Writings
- 5.1 Books
- 5.2 Other
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Biography[ edit ]
Early life[ edit ]
Born in Ribe , Denmark, Jacob Riis was the third of the 15 children (one of whom, an orphaned niece, was fostered) of Niels Edward Riis, a schoolteacher and writer for the local Ribe newspaper, and Carolina Riis (née Bendsine Lundholm), a homemaker.  Among the 15, only Jacob, one sister, and the foster sister survived into the twentieth century.  Riis was influenced by his father, whose school Riis delighted in disrupting. His father persuaded him to read (and improve his English via) Charles Dickens ‘s magazine All the Year Round and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper . 
Jacob had a happy childhood, but the experienced tragedy at the age of eleven when his brother Theodore, a year younger, drowned. He never forgot his mother’s grief. 
At age eleven or twelve, he donated all the money he had and gave it to a poor Ribe family living in a squalid house if they cleaned it. The tenants took the money and obliged; when he told his mother, she went to help. 
Though his father had hoped that Jacob would have a literary career, Jacob wanted to be a carpenter.  When he was 16, he became fond of Elisabeth Gjørtz, the 12-year-old adopted daughter of the owner of the company for which he worked as an apprentice carpenter. The father disapproved of the boy’s blundering attentions, and Riis was forced to complete his carpentry apprenticeship in Copenhagen .  Riis returned to Ribe in 1868 at age 19. Discouraged by poor job availability in the region and Gjørtz’s disfavor of his marriage proposal, Riis decided to emigrate to the United States. 
Migration to the United States[ edit ]
Riis immigrated to America in 1870, when he was 21 years old, seeking employment as a carpenter. He first traveled in a small boat from Copenhagen to Glasgow , where on May 18 he boarded the steamer Iowa , traveling in steerage . He carried $40 donated by friends (he had paid $50 for the passage himself); a gold locket with a strand of Elisabeth’s hair, presented by her mother; and letters of introduction to the Danish Consul, Mr. Goodall (later president of the American Bank Note Company ), a friend of the family since his rescue from a shipwreck at Ribe. 
Riis disembarked in New York on June 5, on that day spending half of the $40 his friends had given him on a revolver for defense against human or animal predators. 
When Riis arrived in New York City, he was one of a large number of migrants and immigrants, seeking prosperity in a more industrialized environment, who came to urban areas during the years after the American Civil War . Twenty-four million people relocated to urban areas, causing their population to increase eightfold.  The demographics of American urban areas became significantly more heterogeneous as many immigrants arrived, creating ethnic enclaves often more populous than many of the cities of their homelands.  “In the 1880s 334,000 people were crammed into a single square mile of the Lower East Side , making it the most densely populated place on earth. They were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements, 10 or 15 to a room, and the well-off knew nothing about them and cared less.” 
After five days, during which he used almost all his money, Riis found work as a carpenter at Brady’s Bend Iron Works on the Allegheny River above Pittsburgh . After a few days of that, he began mining for increased pay but quickly resumed carpentry. Learning on July 19, 1870, that France had declared war on Germany , he expected that Denmark would join France to avenge the Prussian seizure of Schleswig , and determined to fight for France. He returned to New York, and, having pawned most of his possessions and without money, attempted to enlist at the French consulate , but was told that there was no plan to send a volunteer army from America. Pawning his revolver, he walked out of New York until he collapsed from exhaustion; on waking, he walked to Fordham College where a Catholic priest served him breakfast. 
After a brief period of farm working and odd jobs at Mount Vernon , New York, Riis returned to New York, where he read in the newspaper New York Sun that the newspaper was recruiting soldiers for the war. Riis rushed there to enlist, but the editor (whom he later realized was Charles Anderson Dana ) claimed or affected ignorance but offered the famished Riis a dollar for breakfast; Riis indignantly refused.  Riis was destitute, at one time sleeping on a tombstone and surviving on windfall apples. Still, he found work at a brickyard at Little Washington in New Jersey, and was there for six weeks until he heard that a group of volunteers was going to the war. Thereupon he left for New York. 
On arrival, Riis found that the rumor was true but that he had arrived too late. He pleaded with the French consul, who expelled him. He made various other attempts to enlist, none successful.  As autumn began, Riis was destitute, without a job. He survived on scavenged food and handouts from Delmonico’s Restaurant and slept in public areas or in a foul-smelling police lodging-house. At one time Riis’s only companion was a stray dog. One morning he awoke in a lodging-house to find that his gold locket (with its strand of Elisabeth’s hair) had been stolen. He complained to the sergeant, who became enraged and expelled him. Riis was devastated.  The story became a favorite of Riis’s.  One of his personal victories, he later confessed, was not using his eventual fame to ruin the career of the offending officer.  Disgusted, he left New York, buying a passage on a ferry with the silk handkerchief that was his last possession. By doing odd jobs and stowing away on freight trains, Riis eventually reached Philadelphia , where he appealed to the Danish Consul, Ferdinand Myhlertz, for help and was cared for two weeks by the Consul and his wife. 
Myhlertz sent Riis, now dressed properly in a suit, to the home of an old classmate in Jamestown .  Riis worked as a carpenter in Scandinavian communities in the western part of the state, also working a variety of other jobs. He achieved sufficient financial stability to find the time to experiment as a writer, in both Danish and English, although his attempt to get a job at a Buffalo , New York newspaper was unsuccessful, and magazines rejected his submissions. 
Riis was in much demand as a carpenter, a major reason being the low prices he charged. However, his employers exploited his efficiency and low prices, and Riis returned to New York City.  He was most successful as a salesman, particularly of flatirons and fluting irons , becoming promoted to the sales representative of them for Illinois . However, in Chicago he was cheated of both his money and his stock and had to return to an earlier base in Pittsburgh . There he found that his subordinates he had left to sell in Pennsylvania had cheated him in the same manner. He again had little money, and while bedridden with a fever learned from a letter that Elisabeth, the former object of his affection, was engaged to a cavalry officer. Riis then returned to New York by selling flatirons along the way. 
Early journalism[ edit ]
Riis noticed an advertisement by a Long Island newspaper for an editor, applied for and was appointed city editor. He quickly realized why the job had been available: the editor in chief was dishonest and indebted. Riis left in two weeks. 
Again unemployed, Riis returned to the Five Points neighborhood. He was sitting outside the Cooper Union one day when the principal of the school where he had earlier learned telegraphy happened to notice him. He said that if Riis had nothing better to do, then the New York News Association was looking for a trainee. After one more night and a hurried wash in a horse trough, Riis went for an interview. Despite his disheveled appearance, he was sent for a test assignment: to observe and write about a luncheon at the Astor House . Riis covered the event competently and got the job. 
Riis was able to write about both the rich and live in impoverished immigrant communities. He did his job well and was able to become editor of a weekly newspaper, the News. However, this newspaper, the periodical of a political group, soon became bankrupt. Simultaneously, and unusually, Riis got a letter from home which related that both his older brothers, an aunt, and Elisabeth Gjørtz’s fiancé had died. Riis wrote to Elisabeth to propose, and with $75 of his savings and promissory notes, he bought the News company. 
Riis worked hard at his newspaper and soon paid his debts. Newly independent, he was able to target the politicians who had previously been his employers. Meanwhile, he received a provisional acceptance from Elisabeth, who asked him to come to Denmark for her, saying “We will strive together for all that is noble and good”. Conveniently, the politicians offered to buy back the newspaper for five times the price Riis had paid; he was thus able to arrive in Denmark with a substantial amount of money. 
After some months in Denmark, the newly married couple arrived in New York. Riis worked briefly as editor of a south Brooklyn newspaper, the Brooklyn News. To supplement his income, he used a ” magic lantern ” projector to advertise in Brooklyn, projecting either onto a sheet hung between two trees or onto a screen behind a window. The novelty was a success, and Riis and a friend relocated to upstate New York and Pennsylvania as itinerant advertisers. However, this enterprise ended when the pair became involved in an armed dispute between striking railroad workers and the police. Riis quickly returned to New York City. 
Years at the Tribune[ edit ]
A neighbor of Riis, who was the city editor of the New-York Tribune , recommended Riis for a short-term contract. Riis did well and was offered the job of police reporter. He was based in a press office across from police headquarters on Mulberry Street . “Nicknamed ‘Death’s Thoroughfare'”, Riis’s biographer Alexander Alland writes, “It was here, where the street crooks its elbow at the Five Points, that the streets and numerous alleys radiated in all directions, forming the foul core of the New York slums.” 
During these stints as a police reporter, Riis worked the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums of the city. Through his own experiences in the poorhouses, and witnessing the conditions of the poor in the city slums, he decided to make a difference for them.  Working night-shift duty in the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Riis developed a tersely melodramatic writing style and he became one of the earliest reformist journalists.
Photography[ edit ]
Bandit’s Roost (1888) by Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives . This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street , considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City .
Riis had for some time been wondering how to show the squalor of which he wrote more vividly than his words could express. He tried sketching, but was incompetent at this.  Camera lenses of the 1880s were slow as was the emulsion of photographic plates ; photography thus did not seem to be of any use for reporting about conditions of life in dark interiors. In early 1887, however, Riis was startled to read that “a way had been discovered to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.”  The German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability;  the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges. This was the introduction of flash photography .
Recognizing the potential of the flash, Riis informed a friend, Dr. John Nagle, chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the City Health Department who was also a keen amateur photographer. Nagle found two more photographer friends, Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, and the four of them began to photograph the slums. Their first report was published in the New York newspaper The Sun on February 12, 1888; it was an unsigned article by Riis which described its author as “an energetic gentleman, who combines in his person, though not in practice, the two dignities of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York”. The “pictures of Gotham’s crime and misery by night and day” are described as “a foundation for a lecture called ‘The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York.’ to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.” The article was illustrated by twelve line drawings based on the photographs. 
Riis and his photographers were among the first Americans to use flash photography.  Pistol lamps were dangerous and looked threatening,  and would soon be replaced by another method for which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan. The process involved removing the lens cap , igniting the flash powder and replacing the lens cap; the time is taken to ignite the flash powder sometimes allowed a visible image blurring created by the flash. 
Riis’s first team soon tired of the late hours, and Riis had to find other help. Both his assistants were lazy and one was dishonest, selling plates for which Riis had paid. Riis sued him in court successfully. Nagle suggested that Riis should become self-sufficient, so in January 1888 Riis paid $25 for a 4×5 box camera , plate holders, a tripod and equipment for developing and printing . He took the equipment to the potter’s field cemetery on Hart Island to practice, making two exposures. The result was seriously overexposed but successful. 
For some three years, Riis combined his own photographs with others commissioned of professionals, donations by amateurs and purchased lantern slides, all of which formed the basis for his photographic archive.
Because so much of the work was done at night, he was able to photograph the worst elements of the New York slums, the dark streets, tenement apartments, and “stale-beer” dives, and documented the hardships faced by the poor and criminal, especially in the vicinity of notorious Mulberry Street .
Public speaking[ edit ]
Riis accumulated a supply of photography and attempted to submit illustrated essays to magazines. But when an editor at Harper’s New Monthly Magazine said that he liked the photographs but not the writing, and would find another writer, Riis was despondent about magazine publication and instead thought of speaking directly to the public. 
This was not easy. The obvious venue would be a church, but several churches—including Riis’s own—demurred, fearing either that the talks would offend the churchgoers’ sensibilities or that they would offend rich and powerful landlords. However, Adolph Schauffler (of the City Mission Society ) and Josiah Strong arranged to sponsor Riis’s lecture at the Broadway Tabernacle church. Lacking money, Riis partnered with W. L. Craig, a Health Department clerk. 
Riis and Craig’s lectures, illustrated with lantern slides, made little money for the pair, but they both greatly increased the number of people exposed to what Riis had to say and also enabled him to meet people who had the power to affect change, notably Charles Henry Parkhurst and an editor of Scribner’s Magazine , who invited him to submit an illustrated article. 
Books[ edit ]
An eighteen-page article by Riis, How the Other Half Lives , appeared in the Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner’s Magazine. It included nineteen of his photographs rendered as line drawings. Its publication brought an invitation to expand the material into an entire book.  Riis, who favored Henry George ‘s ‘single tax’ system and absorbed George’s theories and analysis, used that opportunity to attack landlords “with Georgian fervor”.  
Riis had already been thinking of writing a book and began writing it during nights. (Days were for reporting for the New York Sun , evenings for public speaking.) How the Other Half Lives, subtitled “Studies Among the Tenements of New York”, was published in 1890. The book reused the eighteen line drawings that had appeared in the Scribner’s article and also seventeen reproductions using the halftone method,  and thus “[representing] the first extensive use of halftone photographic reproductions in a book”.  (The magazine Sun and Shade had done the same for a year or so beginning 1888.  )
How the Other Half Lives sold well and was much quoted. Reviews were generally good, although some reviewers criticized it for oversimplifying and exaggerating.  Riis attributed the success to a popular interest in social amelioration stimulated by William Booth ‘s In Darkest England and the Way Out, and also to Ward McAllister ‘s Society as I Have Found It, a portrait of the moneyed class.  The book encouraged imitations such as Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1892), which somehow appropriated Riis’s own photographs.  
Children of the Poor (1892) was a sequel in which Riis wrote of particular children that he had encountered. 
The Making of an American  (1901), an autobiography, follows Riis’s early life in Denmark and his struggles as an immigrant in the United States. The book also describes how Riis became a reporter and how his work in immigrant enclaves kindled his desire for social reforms. Riis organized his autobiography chronologically, but each chapter illustrates a broader theme that America is a land of opportunity for those who are bold enough to take chances on their future. The autobiography is mostly straightforward, but Riis is not sure if his past should be told as a “love story”, “if I am, to tell the truth … I don’t see how it can be helped.”  Although much of it is biographical, Riis also lays out his opinions about how immigrants like himself can succeed in the United States. Chapter 7 is distinct because Riis’s wife, Elizabeth, describes her life in Denmark before she married Riis.
Whereas How the Other Half Lives, and some of Riis’s other books received praise from critics, he received a mixed reception for his autobiography. A New York Times reviewer dismissed it as a vanity project written for “close and intimate friends”. He admired Riis’s “dogged pluck” and “indomitable optimism”, but dismissed an “almost colossal egotism-made up of equal parts of vanity and conceit” as a major characteristic of the author. The reviewer anticipated the book would be “eagerly read by that large majority who have a craving and perennial interest in the personal and emotional incidents” within Riis’s life.  Riis anticipated such a critique, “I have never been able to satisfactorily explain the great run ‘How The Other Half Lives’ had … like Topsy, it grew.”  Other newspapers, such as the New York Tribune, published kinder reviews.  Two years later, another reviewer reported that Riis’s story was widely reprinted and dubbed him as one of the “best-known authors and … one of the most popular lecturers in the United States.” 
The value of Riis’s autobiography lies in the description of his origins as a social reformer. His early experiences in Ribe gave Riis a yardstick with which to measure tenement dwellers’ quality of life. The account of the development of his powers of observation through his experiences as a poor immigrant lent authenticity to his news articles and larger works. Its themes of self-sufficiency, perseverance, and material success are prime examples of an archetype that successful Europeans like Riis used to demonstrate the exceptional opportunities that seem to exist only in the United States. In spite of its triumphalist outlook, The Making of an American remains useful as a source for students of immigration history and sociology who want to learn more about the author of How The Other Half Lives and the social reform movement that he helped to define.
Theodore Roosevelt[ edit ]
Riis walks the beat in New York City behind his friend and fellow reformer, NYC Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (1894—Illustration from Riis’s autobiography)
Theodore Roosevelt introduced himself to Riis, offering to help his efforts somehow. Upon his 1895 appointment to the presidency of the Board of Commissioners of the New York City Police Department , Roosevelt asked Riis to show him nighttime police work. During their first tour, the pair found that nine out of ten patrolmen were missing. Riis wrote about this for the next day’s newspaper, and for the rest of Roosevelt’s term the force was more attentive. 
Roosevelt closed the police-managed lodging rooms in which Riis had suffered during his first years in New York. After reading the exposés, Roosevelt was so deeply affected by Riis’s sense of justice that he befriended Riis for life, later remarking, “Jacob Riis, whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever knew, although he was already a young man when he came hither from Denmark”. 
After Roosevelt became president, he wrote a tribute to Riis that started:
Recently a man, well qualified to pass judgment, alluded to Mr. Jacob A. Riis as “the most useful citizen of New York”. Those fellow citizens of Mr. Riis who best know his work will be most apt to agree with this statement. The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York City. 
For his part, Riis wrote a campaign biography of Roosevelt that praised him. 
Public works[ edit ]
A particularly important effort by Riis was his exposure of the condition of New York’s water supply. His five-column story “Some Things We Drink”, in the 21 August 1891 edition of the New York Evening Sun, included six photographs (later lost). Riis wrote:
I took my camera and went up in the watershed photographing my evidence wherever I found it. Populous towns sewered directly into our drinking water. I went to the doctors and asked how many days a vigorous cholera bacillus may live and multiply in running water. About seven, said they. My case was made.
The story resulted in the purchase by New York City of areas around the New Croton Reservoir , and may well have saved New Yorkers from an epidemic of cholera . 
Riis tried hard to have the slums around Five Points demolished and replaced with a park. His writings resulted in the Drexel Committee investigation of unsafe tenements; this resulted in the Small Park Act of 1887. Riis was not invited to the eventual opening of the park on 15 June 1897, but went all the same, together with Lincoln Steffens . In the last speech, the street cleaning commissioner credited Riis for the park and led the public in giving him three cheers of “Hooray, Jacob Riis!” Other parks also were created, and Riis was popularly credited with them as well. 
Later life[ edit ]
Riis wrote his autobiography, The Making of an American, in 1901. His daughter, Clara C. Riis, married Dr. William Clarence Fiske.  His son, John Riis (1882–1946), served in Gifford Pinchot’s new United States Forest Service from 1907 to 1913 as a ranger and forest supervisor on national forests in Utah, California and Oregon. He chronicled his time in the Forest Service in his 1937 book, Ranger Trails. Another son, Edward V. Riis, was appointed US Director of Public Information in Copenhagen toward the end of World War I; he is known to have spoken publicly against antisemitism.  A third son, Roger Williams Riis (1894–1953), was also a reporter and activist.    In 1905, Jacob Riis’s wife Elisabeth became ill and died. Riis remarried in 1907, and with his new wife, Mary Phillips, relocated to a farm in Barre , Massachusetts. Riis died at the farm on May 26, 1914. His second wife lived until 1967, continuing work on the farm, working on Wall Street and teaching classes at Columbia University . 
Riis’s grave is marked by an unmarked granite boulder in Riverside Cemetery, in Barre, Massachusetts. 
Social attitudes[ edit ]
Riis’s concern for the poor and destitute often caused people to assume he disliked the rich. However, Riis showed no sign of discomfort among the affluent, often asking them for their support.  Although seldom involved with party politics, Riis was sufficiently disgusted by the corruption of Tammany Hall to change from being an endorser of the Democratic Party to endorse the Republican Party.  The period just before the Spanish–American War was difficult for Riis. He was approached by liberals who suspected that protests of alleged Spanish mistreatment of the Cubans was merely a ruse intended to provide a pretext for US expansionism; perhaps to avoid offending his friend Roosevelt, Riis refused the offer of good payment to investigate this and made nationalist statements. 
Riis emphatically supported the spread of wealth to lower classes through improved social programs and philanthropy, but his personal opinion of the natural causes for poor immigrants’ situations tended to display the trappings of a racist ideology. Several chapters of How the Other Half Lives for example, open with Riis’ observations of the economic and social situations of different ethnic and racial groups via indictments of their perceived natural flaws; often prejudices that may well have been informed by scientific racism .
Criticism[ edit ]
Riis’s sincerity for social reform has seldom been questioned, but critics have questioned his right to interfere with the lives and choices of others. His audience comprised middle-class reformers, and critics say that he had no love for the traditional lifestyles of the people he portrayed. Stange (1989) argues that Riis “recoiled from workers and working-class culture ” and appealed primarily to the anxieties and fears of his middle-class audience.  Swienty (2008) says, “Riis was quite impatient with most of his fellow immigrants; he was quick to judge and condemn those who failed to assimilate, and he did not refrain from expressing his contempt.”  Gurock (1981) says Riis was insensitive to the needs and fears of East European Jewish immigrants who flooded into New York at this time. 
Economist Thomas Sowell (2001) argues that immigrants during Riis’s time were typically willing to live in cramped, unpleasant circumstances as a deliberate short-term strategy that allowed them to save more than half their earnings to help family members come to America, with every intention of relocating to more comfortable lodgings eventually. Many tenement renters physically resisted the well-intentioned relocation efforts of reformers like Riis, states Sowell, because other lodgings were too costly to allow for the high rate of savings possible in the tenements. Moreover, according to Sowell, Riis’s own personal experiences were the rule rather than the exception during his era: like most immigrants and low-income persons, he lived in the tenements only temporarily before gradually earning more income and relocating to different lodgings. 
Riis’s depictions of various ethnic groups can be harsh.   In Riis’s books, according to some historians, “The Jews are nervous and inquisitive, the Orientals are sinister, the Italians are unsanitary.” 
Riis was also criticized for his depiction of African Americans. He was said to portray them as falsely happy with their lives in the “slums” of New York City. This criticism didn’t come until much later after Riis had died. His writing was overlooked because his photography was so revolutionary in his early books.
Memorials[ edit ]
- Jacob Riis Park , on Rockaway Peninsula in the Gateway National Recreation Area , Queens
- Jacob Riis Triangle, in Richmond Hill , Queens 
- Jacob Riis Playground, at Babbage and 116 Streets, 85 Ave, Queens 
- P.S. 126 The Jacob Riis Community School, on Catherine Street in New York City, is a public PK-5 school 
- From 1915 until 2002, Jacob Riis Public School on South Throop Street in Chicago was a high school operated by the Chicago School Board. 
- Jacob Riis Settlement House, a multi-service community-based organization, is in the Queensbridge Houses , in Long Island City , Queens , NY. 
- Jacob Riis Houses of NYCHA at Avenue D (Manhattan)
- Jacob Riis Park Historic District is a historic district that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
- Riis Park on Chicago ‘s Northwest Side in the Galewood – Montclare neighborhood.
Veneration[ edit ]
Riis is honored together with Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on July 2.
Writings[ edit ]
Books[ edit ]
- How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons . 1890.
- The Children of the Poor . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1892.
- Nibsy’s Christmas . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.
- Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City . New York: Century. 1896.
- A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York . New York: Houghton Mifflin . 1900.
- The Making of an American . New York: Macmillan. 1901.
- The Battle with the Slum . New York: Houghton, Mifflin. 1901.
- Children of the Tenements . New York: Houghton, Mifflin. 1903.
- The Peril and the Preservation of the Home: Being the William L. Bull Lectures for the Year 1903 . Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs . 1903.
- Is There a Santa Claus?. New York: Macmillan. 1904.
- Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen . New York: Outlook. 1904.
- The Old Town . New York: Macmillan. 1909.
- Hero Tales of the Far North . New York: Macmillan. 1910.
- Neighbors: Life Stories of the Other Half . New York: Macmillan. 1914.
- Christmas Stories. An anthology of fiction for younger readers. New York: Macmillan. 1923.
Other[ edit ]
- “How We Found Our Farm” . The World’s Work: A History of Our Time . 23: 475–479. February 1912.
Notes[ edit ]
- ^ Pascal, pp. 10–11; Ware, p. 2.
- ^ Ware, p. 5.
- ^ Pascal, p. 12.
- ^ Ware, p. 9.
- ^ Pascal, pp. 12–14; Ware, p. 9.
- ^ Ware, p. 9 Alland, p. 18.
- ^ Pascal, pp. 14–15.
- ^ Yochelson and Czitrom, pp. 3–4
- ^ Alland, p. 17; Ware pp. 14, 17–18.
- ^ Alland, p. 19.
- ^ a b c d James Davidson and Mark Lytle, “The Mirror with a Memory”, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000; ISBN 0-07-229426-4 ).
- ^ Robert Hughes , American Visions
- ^ a b Alland, p. 19; Ware, pp. 19–21. Ware says he went not to the consulate but instead found a reception for “a Frenchmen’s Society”, where he exhausted his hosts’ patience and from which he was expelled.
- ^ Ware, pp. 21–23.
- ^ Ware, p. 23.
- ^ Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), pp. 72–74.
- ^ “Vice Which Is Unchecked”, New York Tribune (date unidentified, but the second half of this is reprinted in Alland, pp. 32–33); as an anecdote told to Theodore Roosevelt, see Alland, p. 32.
- ^ Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), pp. 231–33.
- ^ Ware, pp. 25–26.
- ^ Ware, p. 26.
- ^ Alland, p. 20; Ware, p. 26
- ^ Ware, pp. 26–27
- ^ Alland, p. 21.
- ^ Alland, p. 22.
- ^ a b Alland, p. 23.
- ^ Alland, pp. 23–24; Elisabeth quoted in Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), p. 442.
- ^ Alland, p. 24.
- ^ a b Alland, p. 25.
- ^ Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), pp. 266–67.
- ^ Alland, p. 26; quotation from Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), p.267.
- ^ S. F. Spira, The History of Photography as Seen through the Spira Collection (New York: Aperture, 2001; ISBN 0-89381-953-0 ), p. 77.
- ^ Alland, pp. 26–27; this reproduces the New York Sun article, “Flashes from the slums: Pictures taken in dark places by the lighting process: Some of the results of a journey through the city with an instantaneous camera—The poor, the idle and the vicious.”
- ^ Chris Howes, “Flash Photography”, Oxford Companion to the Photograph, ed. Robin Lenman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; ISBN 0-19-866271-8 ), pp. 224–25.
- ^ Riis, The Making of an American (1904 ed.), p. 268.
- ^ Alland, pp. 27–28.
- ^ Alland, p. 27.
- ^ Alland, p.28.
- ^ a b c Alland, p.29.
- ^ Riis, Jacob A. “The Unemployed: a Problem”. (In Peters, John P., Labor and Capital, a chapter on “Socialism and the Single Tax”, pp. 425-431. New York, 1902. 12°. Questions of the day, no. 98.)
- ^ Burrows, Edwin (1999). Gotham : a history of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1183. ISBN 0195140494 .
- ^ a b c Alland, p.30.
- ^ Martin Parr and Gerry Badger , The Photobook: A History vol. 1 (London: Phaidon, 2004; ISBN 978-0-7148-4285-1 ), 53.
- ^ Alland, pp. 30–31 (although Alland misattributes In Darkest England to Charles Booth ).
- ^ a b Alland, p.31.
- ^ Campbell, Helen. Darkness and Daylight . archive.org. p. xii.
- ^ “Jacob A. Riis”. New York Times. December 19, 1903.
- ^ Riis, Jacob (1970). The Making of an American (Revised ed.). London: MacMillan. p. 2.
- ^ “Mr. Riis’s Autobiography”. New York Times. December 7, 1901.
- ^ Riis. The Making of an American. p. 199.
- ^ “Jacob A. Riis, The Story of His Americanization”. New York Tribune. January 31, 1902.
- ^ “Jacob A. Riis”. New York Times. December 19, 1903.
- ^ a b Alland, p. 32.
- ^ Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (BiblioBazaar, 2007; ISBN 1-4346-0319-9 ), p.66 ( Here at Google Books); an earlier edition also at Project Gutenberg.
- ^ Theodore Roosevelt, “Reform through Social Work: Some Forces that Tell for Decency in New York City”, McClure’s Magazine , March 1901. Reprinted in Judith Mitchell Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason, eds., Readings on Religion as News (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-8138-2926-7 ), p. 187. Available online at Google Books (which inexplicably claims publication by Wiley-Blackwell).
- ^ Alland, p. 34.
- ^ Alland, p. 34, in which the passage by Riis (its own source unidentified) appears; Ware pp. 82–84.
- ^ Alland, p. 35
- ^ ” A day’s weddings ” (PDF), New York Times June 2, 1900. Accessed 2009-08-17.
- ^ ” Danes welcome Riis: Glad he has come to represent our information bureau ” (PDF), New York Times September 21, 1918; “O’Malley puts punch in synagogue drive”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 9, 1919 ( page scan , PDF). Both accessed 2009-08-17.
- ^ “Jacob A. Riis Papers: A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress” (PDF). Library of Congress . 2007. Retrieved 5 September 2017.
- ^ “Roger William Riis Papers: A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress” (PDF). Library of Congress . 2007. Retrieved 5 September 2017.
- ^ “Roger William Riis and the “Battle of the Slums“” . WNYC . January 8, 1950. Retrieved 5 September 2017.
- ^ Francesca Pitaro, “Guide to the Jacob Riis Papers” (Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, 1985; available as a PDF file here Archived 2006-10-15 at the Wayback Machine .).
- ^ “Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914) – Find A Grave Memorial” .
- ^ Alland, p. 33.
- ^ Maren Stange, “Jacob Riis and Urban Visual Culture”, Journal of Urban History, May 1989, Vol. 15 Issue 3, pp. 274–303, quote on p 278
- ^ Tom Swienty, The other half: the life of Jacob Riis and the world of immigrant (2008) p. 157
- ^ Jeffrey S. Gurock, “Jacob A. Riis: Christian Friend or Missionary Foe? Two Jewish Views”, American Jewish History, Sept 1981, Vol. 71 Issue 1, pp. 29–47
- ^ Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Simon and Schuster, 2001), ISBN 0-7432-1507-9 , pp. 128–129.
- ^ Stange, pp. 2–46.
- ^ Dowling, p. 111, quoting Ronald Sanders.
- ^ ” Jacob Riis Triangle “, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, 2001. Accessed 13 August 2009.
- ^ ” Jacob Riis Playground “, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, n.d. Accessed 13 August 2009.
- ^ ” P.S. 126 The Jacob Riis Community School Archived 2009-01-08 at the Wayback Machine .”. Insideschools.org. Accessed 11 August 2009.
- ^ ” Jacob Riis Public School Archived 2009-02-07 at the Wayback Machine .”, Preservation Chicago. Accessed 11 August 2009.
- ^ ” The History of Settlement Houses Archived 2009-09-24 at the Wayback Machine .” at www.riissettlement.org. Accessed 11 August 2009.
References[ edit ]
- Alland, Alexander. Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1993. ISBN 0-89381-527-6
- Buk-Swienty, Tom. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America (2008) 331 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-06023-2
- Dowling, Robert M. Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem. University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN 0-252-07632-X
- Pascal, Janet B. Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-514527-5
- issuu.com & Romero Escrivá, Rebeca. Las dos mitades de Jacob Riis. Un estudio comparativo de su obra literaria y fotográfica . La Laguna (Tenerife): Cuadernos de Bellas Artes, volumes 28 and 29. Sociedad Latina de Comunicación Social, 2014. ISBN 978-84-15698-47-0 (vol. I) / ISBN 978-84-15698-49-4 (vol. II). The two volumes are freely open access
- Romero Escrivá, Rebeca. “Literatura y fotografía: las dos mitades de Jacob Riis”. In Archivos de la Filmoteca. Revista de estudios históricos sobre la imagen, n. 67, April 2011, pp. 170–193. ISSN 0214-6606 . Available online here .
- Romero Escrivá, Rebeca. “Riis, Capa, Rosenthal. Traducciones cinematográficas de la fotografía”. In L’Atalante. Revista de estudios cinematográficos, n. 8, July 2009, pp. 124–133. ISSN 1885-3730 . Available online here .
- Stange, Maren. Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890–1915. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- Stange, Maren, “Jacob Riis and Urban Visual Culture”, Journal of Urban History, May 1989, Vol. 15 Issue 3, pp. 274–303
- Stein, Sally: Making Connections with the Camera. Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis., in: Afterimage, Nr. 10, May 1983, pp. 9–16.
- Swienty, Tom. The other half: the life of Jacob Riis and the world of immigrant America(2008) p. 157
- Ware, Louise. Jacob A. Riis: Police Reporter, Reformer, Useful Citizen. New York: Appleton-Century, 1938. Also available online at archive.org .
- Yochelson, Bonnie and Czitrom, Daniel, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York. New York: New Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59558-199-0
External links[ edit ]
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- Works by Jacob Riis at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Jacob Riis at Internet Archive
- Works by Jacob Riis at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Jacob Riis photographs from the Museum of the City of New York
- Jacob Riis | International Center of Photography
- Jacob Riis page from the Open Collections Program at Harvard University. Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930 collection.
- “Jacob A. Riis’s New York” . New York Times . February 27, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
- Davis, Kay. ” Documenting ‘the Other Half’: The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine “
- Collection of Photographs by Jacob Riis
- Text and images from Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives
- Romero Escrivá, Rebeca. Las dos mitades de Jacob Riis. Un estudio comparativo de su obra literaria y fotográfica, volumes 28 and 29 available online.
- Flash Forward: How the flashbulb changed the face of urban poverty , article on Riis.
- Jacob Riis at Find a Grave
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> Riis and Reform
Jacob Riis: Revealing “How the Other Half Lives”
Riis and Reform
New York City
Will L. Taylor. The City of New York. New York: Galt & Hoy, 1879. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (002.00.00)
When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked New York as the most densely populated city in the United States—1.5 million inhabitants. Riis claimed that per square mile, it was one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The city is pictured in this large-scale panoramic map, a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known also as bird’s-eye views or perspective maps, panoramic maps render places as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. Although not generally drawn to scale, they show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective. This map helps visualize the extreme density, particularly in the Lower East and West Sides of Manhattan, and Jacob Riis’s lifelong concern with ameliorating the lot of those that lived in its crowded slums.
As governor of New York, Riis’s friend Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Tenement House Commission, which led in 1901 to the creation of the Tenement House Department, headed by another Riis friend, Robert de Forest of the Charity Organization Society. Riis and this circle of municipal citizen-reformers, which included social welfare activists Josephine Shaw Lowell and Lillian Wald, worked to gather statistical evidence and raise public awareness. They advocated for new housing designs to ease crowding and improve fire safety, sanitation, and access to air and light. Riis described the evolution of tenement house reform as a forty-year effort, which included demolishing the Five Points and Mulberry Bend neighborhoods, initiating new construction, cleaning the streets, creating parks and playgrounds, tearing down rear tenements, and cutting more than 40,000 windows through interior walls to let in light.
Jacob Riis. “The Tenement House Exhibition.” Harper’s Weekly, February 3, 1900, page from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (006.00.00)
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Flat in Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side
Riis wrote in his 1889 article for Scribner’s Magazine, “How the Other Half Lives:” “Not that all the tenements above Fourteenth Street are good, or even better than those we have seen. There is Hell’s Kitchen and Murderers’ Row in the region of West-side slaughter-houses and three-cent whiskey. . . . ” The couple in this photograph taken by Riis lived on New York City’s West 38th Street in a barracks that covered an entire city block and lacked interior windows, ventilation, and indoor plumbing.
Jacob Riis. Flat in Hell’s Kitchen, “Ruin,” 1887–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis, 199 (18.104.22.168) (003.00.00)
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Fire Insurance Map
During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings–such as the map of the New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, home to a large population of Irish immigrants in Riis’s time. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated “specially hazardous risks” for insurers.
Perris & Browne. West 42nd to West 37th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (004.00.00)
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Disease, sanitation, garbage and hygiene issues were constant concerns in crowded impoverished tenement districts, where vital statistics were alarming. Jacob Riis wrote frequently to urge measures to protect public health and to alert wealthy residents of the city to slum conditions that put everyone at risk. Poor water quality, filth, vermin, and compromised living conditions meant typhus and cholera outbreaks were common, as were high rates of child mortality and tuberculosis. Rag pickers and petty thieves made city dumps their homes, while unemployed “tramps” lived in shack housing in back alleyways. The Tenement House Committee of 1894 (known as the “Gilder Committee) called rear tenements “infant slaughter-houses,” where as many as one in five babies died. Riis collaborated with health and hygiene department officials to compile and report sources of disease and seek remedies to improve public health.
Jacob Riis. “Extra: Real Wharf Rats,” Evening Sun, March 18, 1892, page from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (012.00.00)
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Children of the Dump
In the winter of 1892, Riis visited eleven of the city’s sixteen riverside dumps to investigate the enforcement of two public health laws: one required that old rags be washed before resale, and the other forbade rag pickers from living in the dumps. He learned that neither law was enforced. Riis interviewed the rag pickers and took seven photographs, five of which were reproduced as line engravings in the Evening Sun. Riis saw women and children working and living in the dumps. He wrote: “I found boys who ought to have been at school, picking bones and sorting rags. They said that they slept there, and as the men did, why should they not? It was their home. They were children of the dump, literally.”
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- A Child of the Dump, 1892. Gelatin printing out paper on board [vintage print]. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (22.214.171.124) (008.00.00)
Jacob Riis. A Child of the Dump, 1892. Gelatin printing out paper on board [vintage print]. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (126.96.36.199) (008.00.00)
- In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump, 1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (188.8.131.52) (007.00.00)
Jacob Riis. In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump, 1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (184.108.40.206) (007.00.00)
- Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)
Perris & Browne. Piers along the East River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (009.00.00)
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As older dense buildings gave way to new tenement design, Riis advocated for open-air parks for children, who previously had nowhere but the streets or the dark hallways and cramped back spaces of tenements to play. Riis helped raise support for small public parks and thought that every public school should have a playground. He believed in the right of boys and girls to play as part of healthy early child development, and as an outlet for energies that could instead be turned to lives of vice or crime. One of Jacob Riis’s triumphs as a reformer was the creation of Mulberry Bend Park where crime-ridden housing had once been. Riis believed in the benefits of exposure to nature and also supported the idea of excursions for city kids to farms and meadows in the countryside.
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“Playgrounds as a Cure for City Crime,” Brooklyn Times, April 27, 1900, from page in Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (017.00.00)
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Establishing Parks and Playgrounds
Riis photographed a privately funded, experimental playground at West 28th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, the block pictured in the map above, where equipment was installed, and a janitor and two teachers were hired to watch the children. Riis described the park: “It was not exactly an attractive place. . . . But the children thought it lovely, and lovely it was for Poverty Gap, if not for Fifth Avenue.” Riis helped establish several small public parks in tenement neighborhoods including a park on Rivington Street. This petition, signed by 300 school girls “to make the corporation yard at the foot of Rivington St. into a public play-ground,” succeeded. Hamilton Fish Park opened in 1900.
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- Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap, 1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (220.127.116.11) (013.00.00)
Jacob Riis. Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap, 1892.Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (18.104.22.168) (013.00.00)
Petition for Rivington Street Park, 1897, page of signatures. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)
Perris & Browne. West 32nd to West 17th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (015.00.00)
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As a young new immigrant, alone, homeless, and struggling to find work—with only a stray dog as a companion on the street—Jacob Riis was the victim of crime at a police lodging house. A locket bearing an image of his beloved Elisabeth was stolen from him in his sleep. Reporting the crime, he was thrown from the premises by a disbelieving policeman, who clubbed his dog to death when it snarled in his defense. Riis never forgot either the theft or the brutality, and his crusade against conditions in police lodging houses became his vendetta. Claiming the true crime was the lack of action on the part of municipal authorities to institute reform, Riis campaigned for the establishment of city-run lodging houses as an alternative, both to alleviate public menace and provide decent habitation for men and women in crisis.
Jacob Riis. “Vice Which is Unchecked in Police Lodging Houses,” New York Tribune, January 31, 1892, page from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (025.00.00)
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Bandits’ Roost was an alley on Mulberry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, where Italian immigrants paid excessive rent to live in “rear tenements,” ramshackle structures that were added onto old houses. Riis, working with amateur photographers Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard, took this photograph with a stereoscopic camera, which produced two side-by-side images: on the left is a woman with two small children; on the right, young “toughs” look warily at the camera. Riis led a ten-year crusade to clean up the area in which this photograph was taken; called “Mulberry Bend,” it was notorious as a haven for gangs and criminal activity.
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- Bandits’ Roost, 1887–1888. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (22.214.171.124 & .105) (018.00.00)
Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G. Piffard, photographers. Bandits’ Roost, 1887–1888. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (126.96.36.199 & .105) (018.00.00)
- Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)
Perris & Browne. “Mulberry Street” from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (021.00.00)
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Jacob Riis worried about sweatshop labor taking place within tenement apartments and in small factory locations in the Lower East Side. Whole families, including children, as well as hired help, would often be involved in various levels of piecework. Garment making (cutting, sewing, tailoring, pressing), cigar making, millinery, and artificial flower assembly, were among the forms of production at which immigrant laborers worked in crowded hot conditions inside residences and were paid by the “piece” or the lot. Sweatshop labor meant health risks,
including high rates of consumption and shortened life spans. Riis was dismayed about child labor in particular—in homes and in factories. Adolescent girls tended younger siblings while parents worked, or took on heavy domestic jobs like laundry and scrubbing. Out in the streets,
newsboys roamed at night and vice beckoned boys and girls alike. Riis lamented that many of these little children appeared old before their time from taking on adult forms of labor.
Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Rare Book and Special Collections Division , Library of Congress (030.00.00)
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Riis devoted a chapter of How the Other Half Lives to “The Bohemians—Tenement-House Cigar Making.” Riis described these Eastern European immigrants as working seventeen-hour days, seven days a week, inside their apartments rank with toxic fumes, making pennies an hour by stripping and drying piles of tobacco leaves and rolling finished products. In the Riis photograph, the parents work at the cigar mold and their oldest child, at the center of the frame, prepares the tobacco leaves for rolling.
Jacob Riis. Bohemian Cigar Makers at Work, 1889–1890. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (188.8.131.52) (027.00.00)
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Fire Insurance Map
During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings—such as the map above of an area east of the Bowery where there was a dense concentration of Jewish tenement sweatshops. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated “specially hazardous risks” for insurers.
Perris & Browne. Plate 24 ½ Lower East Side from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (028.00.00)
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Jacob Riis honored education, especially for children, as a way up and out of slum life. The son of a schoolmaster, Riis had been a rebellious student; nevertheless, he loved to read as a child. He believed that education was not just a pathway to better employment and a more fulfilled and informed life, it made good naturalized citizens. Riis was a strong supporter of industrial schools, which imparted practical job-related skills and taught civics lessons to children whose families originated from many nations. Though work was almost always a necessity, some first-generation immigrants recognized the better chances that literacy in English could bring to their children, and supported their sons and daughters in their desire to learn to read and write. Riis also worked with the New York Kindergarten Association and settlement house workers to promote early child education.
“‘A Message from the Slums,’ Jacob Riis of New York Addresses the Congregational Club,” Hartford [CT] Courant, May 22, 1895, from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (035.00.00)
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Educating the Young
Pietro worked as a bootblack before he was hit by a streetcar and maimed. Riis made two photographs of the boy at his home on Jersey Street, where he was learning to write English, “in the hope of his doing something somewhere at sometime to make up for what he had lost.” In the photograph above, the thirteen-year-old Pietro is shown with his mother and young sibling.
Riis believed that introducing immigrant children to the principles of American democracy would go a long way toward making them proud citizens. The administrator of the Beach Street Industrial School on the Lower East Side of New York asked the students to vote on whether the school day should begin with a salute to the American flag. Riis’s photograph shows the students casting their ballots, monitored by the student election inspectors
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- Pietro Learning to Write, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (184.108.40.206) (032.00.00)
Jacob Riis. Pietro Learning to Write, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (220.127.116.11) (032.00.00)
- The First Patriotic Election in the Beach Street Industrial School, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (18.104.22.168) (033.00.00)
Jacob Riis. The First Patriotic Election in the Beach Street Industrial School, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (22.214.171.124) (033.00.00)
- Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)
Perris & Browne. Beach Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (034.00.00)
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Jacob Riis, himself once homeless as a young man new to the United States, wrote sympathetic vignettes about those who fell on hard times and became homeless—often due to the loss of a job or an injury or, because they were evicted from their tenement homes when they could not afford escalating rents. Riis lamented the indifference of employers and the greed of landlords. But he reserved particular venom for those who begged for a living or who did not actively seek work, a category of homeless he referred to as “tramps.” His campaign against police lodging houses, which acted as nightly homeless shelters, was due to their poor conditions and their role in the spread of crime and disease, but also because they perpetuated this form of homelessness. With the help of then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the police station lodging houses were closed in 1896, with the intent that those displaced were to be served by improved charitable and civic services.
Jacob Riis. “Police Lodging Houses: Are They Hotbeds for Typhus?” Christian Union, January 14, 1893, from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (038.00.00)
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Eldridge Street Station
In 1892 and 1893, Riis took photographs of the deplorable conditions of the police lodging houses, which served as the city’s homeless shelters. These images illustrated his articles and a lecture at the Academy of Medicine in February 1893—a lecture Riis gave to garner support for closing the houses and replacing them with a municipal wayfarer’s lodge. The police station lodging rooms at 87/89 Eldridge Street, located on the lower right portion of the map above, sheltered only women. When a sick man asked to stay for the night, he was placed in an empty room and laid down on the bare plank floor. It was soon discovered that he had typhus. Riis wrote:
It was a piece of good luck that it was this [station] the typhus lodger found his way, or there is no telling where the trail of contagion he would have started might have ended
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- The Single Typhus Lodger in Eldridge Street, 1893. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (126.96.36.199) (036.00.00)
Jacob Riis. The Single Typhus Lodger in Eldridge Street, 1893.Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (188.8.131.52) (036.00.00)
- Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)
Perris & Browne. “Eldridge Street, north of Grand Street” from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (037.00.00)
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Ellis Island served as the gateway for more than twelve million immigrants from many nations between its opening as the U.S. immigration inspection station at the port of New York in 1892 to its closing in the 1950s. When Riis emigrated from Denmark in 1870 to seek “an honest dollar,” the German, Irish, and Chinese immigration of the mid-century was ebbing. Most Scandinavian immigrants headed to farmland and cities in the West and Midwest. As Riis gained fame in his career—between 1890 and his death in 1914—a “third” or “new” wave of immigrants arrived in New York. Of many nationalities and faiths, they came primarily from Russia, Italy, and Eastern Europe. When featuring New York’s immigrant groups and their neighborhoods in his articles and bestselling books, Riis expressed personal religious and ethnic prejudices, but he steadfastly championed immigrants he perceived to be of good character and drive.
Jacob Riis. “The Gateway of All Nations,” Christian Herald, October 11, 1905. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (041.00.00)
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In Jersey Street
An Italian family lived in this one-room, windowless home on Jersey Street, a few blocks from Riis’s Mulberry Street office. Jersey Street in the map above is sandwiched between Prince and East Houston Streets and is crammed with the back-to-back tenements that Riis railed against. In Riis’s photograph the family’s possessions and furnishings, which includes a rolled mattress, barrel, and piles of clothes; a dustpan, a basin, a wooden pallet that may have served as a bed, and a cast iron stove and various containers, fill the frame. Riis commented on the Italian custom of swaddling: “You can see how they wrap [their babies] around and around until you can almost stand them on either end and they won’t bend, so tightly are they bound.”
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- Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street, 1888–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (184.108.40.206) (039.00.00)
Jacob Riis. Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street, 1888–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (220.127.116.11) (039.00.00)
- Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)
Perris & Browne. Plate 24 showing Jersey Street, between Prince and East Houston Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1880. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (040.00.00)
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