Summary Jacob A. Riis

Jacob Augustus Riis (1849–1914) was a journalist and social reformer in late 19th and early 20th century New York. He steadily publicized the crises in poverty, housing and education at the height of European immigration, when the Lower East Side became the most densely populated place on Earth. From his job as a police reporter working for the local newspapers, he developed a deep, intimate knowledge of Manhattan’s slums where Italians, Czechs, Germans, Irish, Chinese and other ethnic groups were crammed in side by side. His innovative use of flashlight photography to document and portray the squalid living conditions, homeless children and filthy alleyways of New York’s tenements was revolutionary, showing the nightmarish conditions to an otherwise blind public. His innovative use of ‘magic lantern’ picture lectures coupled with gifted storytelling and energetic work ethic captured the imagination of his middle-class audience and set in motion long lasting social reform, as well as documentary, investigative photojournalism.

After the success of his first book, How the Other Half Lives (1890) Riis became a prominent public speaker and figurehead for the social activist as well as for the muckraker journalist. Among his other books, The Making of An American (1901) became equally famous, this time detailing his own incredible life story from leaving Denmark, arriving homeless and poor to building a career and finally breaking through, marrying the love of his life and achieving success in fame and status.

He died in Barre, Massachusetts, in 1914 and was recognized by many as a hero of his day.

Jacob A. Riis Biography

Growing up in a small Medieval town in Denmark

Ribe in Denmark is known as Scandinavia’s oldest, and some say most charming, town. Jacob A. Riis was born here in 1849 and raised in a small two story house on Sortebrødregade (Black Friar Street). The house, still in use today, will be converted into the museum about his life and legacy.

But Ribe was not such a charming town in the 1850’s. After several hundred years of decline, the town was poor and malnourished. Although Jacob’s father was a schoolmaster, the family had many children to support over the years. In total Jacob’s mother gave birth to fourteen children of which one was stillborn. Tragically, many of Jacob’s brothers and sisters died at a young age from accidents and disease, the latter being linked to unclean drinking water and tuberculosis. Only four of them lived passed 20 years, one of which was Jacob.

In those times a huge proportion of Denmark’s population – the equivalent of a third of the population in the half-century up to 1890 – emigrated to find better opportunities, mostly in America. That is what Jacob decided finally to do in 1870, aged 21.

Journalist in New York City

‘In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share a shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination rifled from the dumps and ash-barrels of the city.’

After working several menial jobs and living hand-to-mouth for three hard years, often sleeping in the streets or an overnight police cell, Jacob A. Riis eventually landed a reporting job in a neighborhood paper in 1873. He found his calling as a police reporter for the New York Tribune and Evening Sun, a role he mastered over a 23 year career. In this role he developed a deep, intimate knowledge of the workings of New York’s worst tenements, where block after block of apartments housed the millions of working-poor immigrants.  Cramming in a room just 10 or 11 feet each way might be a whole family or a dozen men and women, paying ‘5 cents a spot’ – a spot on the floor to sleep.

Riis’ hallmark was exposing crime, death, child labor, homelessness, horrid living and working conditions and injustice in the slums of New York. He blended this with his strong Protestant beliefs on moral character and work ethic, leading to his own views on what must be done to fight poverty when the wealthy upper class and politicians were indifferent. Later, Riis developed a close working relationship and friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, then head of Police Commissioners, and together they went into the slums on late night investigations. Many of the ideas Riis had about necessary reforms to improve living conditions were adopted and enacted by the impressed future President.

Photographer

‘My writing did not make much of an impression – these things rarely do, put in mere words – but my negatives, still dripping from the dark-room, came to reinforce them.’

Today, Riis’ photos may be the most famous of his work, with a permanent display at the Museum of the City of New York and a new exhibition co-presented with the Library of Congress (April 14 – September 5, 2016). However, Riis himself never claimed a passion in the art and even went as far as to say “I am no good at all as a photographer”. Rather, he used photography as a means to an end; to tell a story and, ultimately, spur people into action. This was verified by the fact that when he eventually moved to a farm in Massachusetts, many of his original photographic negatives and slides – over 700 in total – were left in a box in the attic in his old house in Richmond Hill. His materials are today collected in five repositories: the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Southwest Jutland.

Author

‘Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives’’

After a series of investigative articles in contemporary magazines about New York’s slums, which were accompanied by photographs, Riis published his groundbreaking work How the Other Half Lives in 1890. It became a best seller, garnering wide awareness and acclaim. He went on to write more than a dozen books, including Children of the Poor, which focused on the particular hard-hitting issue of child homelessness.

Riis recounted his own remarkable life story in The Making of An American (1901), his second national best-seller. It told his tale as a poor and homeless immigrant from Denmark; the love story with his wife; the hard-working reporter making a name for himself and making a difference; to becoming well-known, respected and a close friend of the President of the United States. Today, this is still a timeless story of becoming an American.

Lecturer and Social Reformer

‘It is squalid houses that makes squalid people’

The success of his first book and new found social status launched him into a career of social reform. He had mastered the new art of a multimedia presentation using a ‘magic lantern’, a device that illuminated glass photographic slides on to a screen. Riis became sought after and travelled extensively, giving eye-opening presentations right across the United States. He was determined to educate middle-class Americans about the daily horrors that poor city residents endured. Arguing that it is the environment that makes the person and anyone can become a good citizen given the chance, Riis wished to force reforms on New York’s police-operated poorhouses, building codes, child labor and city services.

More than just writing about it, Jacob A. Riis actively sought to make changes happen locally, advocating for efforts to build new parks, playgrounds and settlement houses for poor residents. Many of these were successful. For example, after ‘ten years of angry protests and sanitary reform effort’ came the demolishing of the Mulberry Bend tenement and the creation of a green park in 1895, known today as Columbus Park.

Legacy

‘Never give up’

Roosevelt respected him so much that he reportedly called him ‘the best American I ever knew’.

His most enduring legacy remains the written descriptions, photographs, and analysis of the conditions in which the majority of New Yorkers lived in the late nineteenth century. He is credited with starting the muckraker journalist movement.

But he also significantly helped improve the lives of millions of poor immigrants through his and others efforts on social reform.

“Strongly influenced by the work of the settlement house pioneers in New York, Riis collaborated with the King’s Daughters, an organization of Episcopalian church women, to establish the King’s Daughters Settlement House in 1890. Originally housed on 48 Henry Street in the Lower East Side, the settlement house offered sewing classes, mothers clubs, health care, summer camp and a penny provident bank. In 1901, the organization was renamed the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House (Riis Settlement) in honor of its founder and broadened the scope of activities to include athletics, citizenship classes, and drama.”

Riis Settlement House

Today, well over a century later, the themes of immigration, poverty, education and equality are just as relevant. We feel that it is important to face these topics in order to encourage thinking and discussion.