Jacob August Riis 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. Biography
Early life Born in Ribe, Denmark, Jacob Riis was the
third of the 15 children of Niels Edward Riis, a schoolteacher and occasional writer for
the local Ribe newspaper, and Carolina Riis, 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, and who persuaded him to read
Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.
Jacob had a happy childhood, but experienced tragedy at the age of eleven when his brother
Theodor, a year younger than he, drowned. He never forgot his mother’s grief.
At age eleven or twelve years, he donated all the money he had and gave it to a poor
Ribe family living in a squalid house, on condition that they cleaned it. The tenants
took the money and obliged; when he told his mother, she went to help.
Although his father had hoped that Jacob would have a literary career, Jacob wanted to be
a carpenter. When he was 16 years old, 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 by Gjørtz’s disfavor of his marriage proposal,
Riis decided to emigrate to the United States. Migration to the United States
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;
a gold locket with a strand of Elisabeth’s hair, presented by her mother; and letters
of introduction to the Danish Consul, Mr. Goodall, 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. 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. Large groups of migrants and immigrants,
seeking prosperity in a more industrialized environment, 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. “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 farmworking 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 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 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 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 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 life 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 fiançé
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 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 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 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, plateholders, 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 Riis accumulated a supply of photographs 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 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 effect change, notably Charles Henry Parkhurst and an editor of Scribner’s
Magazine, who invited him to submit an illustrated article.
Books 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 had already been thinking of writing
a book, and began writing it during nights. 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”. 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, which somehow appropriated Riis’s own photographs.
Children of the Poor was a sequel in which Riis wrote of particular children that he
had encountered. Theodore Roosevelt 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: For his part, Riis wrote a campaign biography
of Roosevelt that praised him. Public works
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. Riis wrote:
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
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, 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. 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
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 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 life styles of the people he portrayed. Stange argues
that Riis “recoiled from workers and working-class culture” and appealed primarily to the anxieties
and fears of his middle class audience. Swienty 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 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 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. As portrayed in Riis’s books,
“The Jews are nervous and inquisitive, the Orientals are sinister, the Italians are unsanitary.”
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.
“How We Found Our Farm”. The World’s Work: A History of Our Time 23: 475–479. February
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 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 Riis is honored together with Walter Rauschenbusch
and Washington Gladden with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church
on July 2. Notes References
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 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
Romero Escrivá, Rebeca. Las dos mitades de Jacob Riis. Un estudio comparativo de su obra
literaria y fotográfica. La Laguna: Cuadernos de Bellas Artes, volumes 28 and 29. Sociedad
Latina de Comunicación Social, 2014. ISBN 978-84-15698-47-0 / ISBN 978-84-15698-49-4.
The two volumes are freely open access: http:issuu.comdocs/cba28 & http:issuu.comdocs/cba29
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 here 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 Works by Jacob A. Riis at Project Gutenberg
Works by Jacob A. Riis at LibriVox Jacob Riis photographs from the Museum of
the City of New York 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” Jacob Riis at Find a Grave
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.