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Jacob Riis (1849–1914)

Photograph of Jacob Riis in The Making of an American, New York: Macmillan, 1904.
Photograph of Jacob Riis in The Making of an American, New York: Macmillan, 1904.

Through a pioneering blend of investigative reporting and documentary photojournalism, Jacob Riis helped to expose the horrible conditions of the slums in which the lower classes of New York City lived.

Riis emigrated to the United States from Denmark in 1870 at the age of 21, and he knew what it was like to be desperately poor and live in substandard tenement housing. In 1877, Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune, before becoming a reporter for the New York Evening Sun in 1888. Working as a police reporter enabled Riis to write stories about the New York City slums and to learn more about the immigrant neighborhoods that would later serve as the focus of his calls for social reform.

Riis's use of flashlight powder allowed him to take pictures of the interiors of shoddy tenement housing—images of extreme poverty that shocked the New York middle and upper classes. In 1890, Riis published his most famous work, How the Other Half Lives, a book that used revealing photojournalism and detailed analysis of the housing problems afflicting poor immigrants to argue in favor of reforming New York's tenements.

This groundbreaking book launched Riis on a career of social reform, and he devoted the rest of his life to raising awareness about the grim realities facing poor immigrants inside New York City's slums. Riis's work brought him to the attention of one particularly important New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president of the New York Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897. Roosevelt and Riis became fast friends, and Roosevelt reportedly went with Riis on some of his late-night adventures into the New York slums to investigate living conditions.

Riis and other Progressive-era reformers, often called "muckrakers," contended that poverty was the product of imperfect social and economic systems, and that it could therefore be reduced through increased government regulation of the economy. The idea that poverty can be eliminated through government-sponsored reforms, which Riis helped to promote, has had long-term effects on American politics through the present day. Riis was far from the only reformer who espoused this opinion in the late 19th century, but he was one of the earliest and most influential advocates of modern social reform. Riis died on March 26, 1914.

Browse Published Materials Digitized for Immigration to the US

Related Publications on Tenement Housing Reform, Immigration, and Urban Poverty

The Burden of the City. 4th ed. New York: F.H. Revell Co., c1904.

Description of Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement (Center), in Handbook of Settlements. Eds. Robert A. Woods and Albert J. Kennedy. New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1911. Pages 216–217.

Cole, William Isaac. Motives and Results of the Social Settlement Movement: Notes on an Exhibit Installed in the Social Museum of Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1908.

Pratt, Edward Ewing. Industrial Causes of Congestion of Population in New York City. New York: Columbia University: Longmans, Green & Co, 1911.

Reynolds, Marcus T. The Housing of the Poor in American Cities: The Prize Essay of the American Economic Association for 1892. [Baltimore]: American Economic Association, 1893.

The Tenement House Problem: Including the Report of the New York Tenement House Commission of 1900 / by various writers. Eds. Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller. New York: Macmillan Co., 1903.

Veiller, Lawrence. Tenement House Reform in New York, 1834–1900 / prepared for the Tenement House Commission of 1900 by Lawrence Veiller. New York: Evening Post Job Print. House, 1900.

Veiller, Lawrence. Room Overcrowding and the Lodger Evil. New York: National Housing Association, 1913.

Woods, Robert Archey. The Settlement Horizon: A National Estimate. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1922.

Other Resources

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