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

Little Katie

“‘I scrubs.’ Little Katie from the W. 52nd Street Industrial School,” Jacob Riis, ca 1890. From the collection of Museum of the City of New York,

Portrait of a young girl, Katie, taken in 1890. Jacob Riis titled this image: “‘I scrubs.’ Little Katie from the W. 52nd Street Industrial School.”

Jacob Riis often photographed children he described as “little mothers,” who bore responsibility for cooking and cleaning for their families or taking care of other children in their households. “Little Katie,” portrayed in his 1892 book The Children of the Poor, was one such child.

Read the excerpt below from Jacob Riis's book, The Children of the Poor, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1892, to learn more about Little Katie:

The serious responsibilities of life had come early to Katie. On the top floor of a tenement [crowded, low-cost apartment building] in West Forty-ninth Street she was keeping house for her older sister and two brothers, all of whom worked in the hammock factory, earning from $4.50 to $1.50 a week. They had moved together when their mother died and the father brought home another wife…Katie did the cleaning and the cooking…The picture shows what a sober [serious], patient, sturdy little thing she was, with that dull life wearing on her day by day. At the school they loved her for her gentle ways. She got right up when asked and stood for her picture without a question and without a smile. “What kind of work do you do?” I asked, thinking to interest her while I made ready. “I scrubs,” she replied, promptly, and her look guaranteed that what she scrubbed came out clean.

Based on the photograph entitled "I scrubs. Little Katie from the W. 52nd Street Industrial School" and the excerpt from Riis’s The Children of the Poor, answer the following questions:

  1. How would you describe Katie?
  2. What role does she play in her household?
  3. How is Katie, the subject of this photograph, interacting with the photographer?
  4. How does the composition of the photograph affect the way you feel about Katie? (Composition means the arrangement of the different parts of the photograph).
  5. How does the composition of this photograph compare to the other photographs featured in the section “From Candids to Portraits?”