Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half

Introduction: Jacob Riis and His Work

“Knee-pants" at forty five cents a dozen -- A Ludlow Street Sweater's Shop, Jacob Riis, ca 1889. From the collection of Museum of the City of New York,

Historical Overview

Between 1870 and 1900, 9 million of the 12 million immigrants who came to the United States settled in New York. Like generations before them, many immigrants, largely from Eastern and Southern Europe, arrived hoping to improve their lives and those of their children. Instead, many of them found themselves living amidst unprecedented urban squalor in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Newspaper reporter Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), himself an immigrant from Denmark, began documenting the unregulated housing conditions in New York City in the 1880s to make poverty visible to the middle and upper classes and to shock his audience into action. He rose to national prominence with his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, in which he exposed the unhealthy living and working conditions in the tenements, sweatshops, and streets of New York, riveting the attention of the nation and earning a reputation as the country’s leading social reformer.

Jacob A. Riis was a skilled communicator whose his success derived not only from his passion and actions, but from his innovative use of the media of his time. However, recent critics have called attention to the power dynamics in his relationship to his subjects and his use of racial stereotypes of Chinese, African Americans, Jews, and Italians in describing New York’s working poor in his accompanying texts.

Today, Riis is remembered today as much for his revolutionary photographs as for his writings. Ironically, he did not consider himself a photographer and did not see any intrinsic value in his images beyond their immediate use in illustrating his words. But the images made an indelible mark on his audiences. Explore the images and activities in this resource kit to learn how a media-savvy journalist became a national force in social reform.

Studio portrait of Jacob Riis

Life and Career of Jacob Riis:

Jacob A. Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849 and immigrated to America at age 20 with hopes of one day marrying his teenage love, Elisabeth Gjortz. For four years, Riis took on odd jobs as a laborer and salesman, until a brief, non-paying job with a failing New York City newspaper started him on a career as a police reporter.

For 23 years, Riis worked for the New York Tribune and the Evening Sun from an office at 301 Mulberry Street across from police headquarters in a tenement district. By the 1890s, Riis’s writing led then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to meet with Riis in his newspaper office across from police headquarters on Mulberry Street. The two men supported each other publicly throughout their careers, artfully using the media to enhance each other’s reputation.   

From the start of his work in journalism, Riis used storytelling to paint a vivid picture of the crime and poverty in the city’s tenement neighborhoods. The invention of “flashlight photography” in 1887 inspired Riis to strengthen his message with images, as he could now take photographs in the dark and dimly lit rooms and alleyways of the city. Throughout his career, Riis worked steadily as a touring lecturer, using photographs to illustrate his talks. His book How the Other Half Lives (1890) became a national bestseller, making Riis a well-known public figure and social reformer.  

"The Battle with the Slum", poster for Riis Lecture. Riis used the derogatory term "slum", as did many of his contemporaries, to describe the living conditions of the working poor.

About the Collection: The Box in the Attic  

Riis did not consider his photographic collection to be of particular value.  Although he carefully arranged his personal papers for posterity, he made no such arrangement for his photographs. Indeed, when he moved to Massachusetts in 1912, he left the collection behind in the attic of his home in Richmond Hill, Queens.  

In the mid-1940s, Riis’s son Roger William Riis, encouraged by photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., returned to the house and located a box in the attic, which contained his father’s collection of negatives, lantern slides, and prints. Roger William donated the bulk of the photographs – those depicting New York -- to the Museum of the City of New York. Subsequently, the Riis family gave the remainder of the photographs along with Riis’s papers to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.