Jacob Riis Essay - Critical Essays

Riis, Jacob


Riis, Jacob 1849-1914

(Jacob August Riis) American social reformer, journalist, autobiographer, and biographer.

Through such works as How the Other Half Lives (1890), journalist Riis exposed Americans to the miseries endured by New York City's slum residents. His was not the first writing on the living conditions of the urban underclass, but among that literature it was original in its use of the relatively new photographic medium to illuminate its text. Even more significant was the fact that Riis did not merely draw national attention to tenement conditions: he offered recommendations for their remedy. Principal among his solutions was housing reform, not just the making of laws to limit the number of people who could be crammed into a given living space, but also the destruction or renovation of old buildings. Individually, and as a leader in a larger social reform movement that included such pivotal figures as Jane Addams, Riis would have an enormous impact on urban life in America. During his time, he saw the passing of numerous zoning laws and initiatives such as New York state's Tenement House Law of 1901, as well as the demolishing of thousands of tenements and other run-down areas, and the building of new structures. In part because of Riis, a century later the cities of the United States would have more parks, more safe and well-lit buildings, and more space per person than they did in the late 1800s.

Biographical Information

Riis was born the son of a schoolteacher in the town of Ribe, Denmark, about which he would later reminisce in The Old Town (1909). At the age of twenty-one, in 1870, he emigrated to the United States and spent the next seven years wandering the northeastern part of the country. He barely made a living during that time, and his career as such did not begin until 1877, when he obtained a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In 1888, he took a position with the Evening Sun. Through his newspaper work, Riis became closely acquainted with New York's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. This became the impetus for his first and most famous book, How the Other Half Lives, a landmark in the history of slum reform. On the popularity of his book and his own growing reputation, Riis became a well-known lecturer and activist who called for childlabor reform, creation of school playgrounds, improvements in the city water supply, and new housing. His activities brought him into contact with the city police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and the two became lifelong friends. Throughout the 1890s, Riis continued to publish books, conduct lectures, and engage in reform activities that included a position as secretary of the New York City Small Parks Commission. In 1899 he retired from newspaper work, though he continued his other activities up to the time of his death in 1914.

Major Works

By far the most significant of Riis's books was his first, How the Other Half Lives. In it he presented what would become familiar themes and images, most notably that of the dark, dirty, and dangerous tenement house. Such dwelling spaces produced children deprived of typical childhood pleasures through overwork, neglect, and other forms of abuse, and these unfortunate children assumed almost as much significance in Riis's studies of the urban underbelly of the Gilded Age. Thus his second major work was The Children of the Poor (1892). In A Ten Years' War (1900) and The Battle with the Slum (1902), Riis presented a record of his own activities to combat the disastrous conditions of the poor neighborhoods. With The Making of an American (1901), he took the autobiographical approach a step further, in a presentation of his whole career as an American success story and an example of a European immigrant's assimilation into the larger culture of the New World. His last major work, The Old Town, focused on one aspect of his biography in its portrayal of his Danishhome. With Theodore Roosevelt, The Citizen (1904), Riis offered a largely uncritical portrayal of his well-known friend.

Principal Works

How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (journalism) 1890

The Children of the Poor (journalism) 1892

A Ten Years' War (journalism) 1900

The Making of an American (autobiography) 1901

The Battle with the Slum (journalism) 1902

Theodore Roosevelt, The Citizen (biography) 1904

The Old Town (memoirs) 1909


Jacob Riis (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: "Flashes from the Slums: Pictures in Dark Places by the Lighting Process," in Photography: Essays & Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, pp. 154-57.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in the New York Sun, Riis comments on some of his photographs.]

With their way illuminated by spasmodic flashes, as bright and sharp and brief as those of the lightning itself, a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their socalled lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled at and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about. Of course all this fuss speedily became known to THE SUN reporters, and equally as a matter of course they speedily found out the meaning of the seeming mystery. But at the request of the parties interested the publication of the facts was delayed until the purpose of the expedition was accomplished. That has now been done, and its history may now be written.

The party consisted of members of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York experimenting with the process of taking instantaneous pictures by an artifical flash light, and their guide and conductor, 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. His object in the matter, besides the interest in the taking of the pictures, was the collection of a series of views for magic lantern slides, showing, as no mere description could, the misery and vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience. Aside from its strong human interest, he thought that this treatment of the topic would call attention to the needs of the situation, and suggest the direction in which much good might be done. The nature of this feature of the deacon-reporter's idea is indicated by the way he has succeeded in interesting the children in his Sunday school on Long Island in the work of helping the destitute children of the metropolis. The ground about the little church edifice is turned into a garden, in which the Sunday school children work at spading, hoeing, planting, and weeding, and the potatoes and other vegetables thus raised are contributed to a children's home in this city. In furtherance of just such aims the deaconreporter threw himself with tireless energy into the pursuit of pictures of Gotham's crime and misery by night and day to make 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 entire composition of the night rousing party was: Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, two accomplished and progressive amateur photographers; Dr. John T. Nagle of the Health Board, who is strongly interested in the same direction, and Jacob A. Riis, the deacon-reporter.

The first picture in this report gives a view of life among the white slaves, as the needle-women of New York are truthfully and pathetically designated since THE SUN has disclosed so much of the misery and oppression they suffer. The women are mother and daughter, both widows. As they are both able to work, and have no children or any one depending on them, they are exceptionally well off among the class to which they belong. But it is only by unremitting work, early and late, that they are able to keep over themselves the poor shelter of a tenement house roof and provide the actual necessaries of life.

The adventures of the picture-taking party in other directions were interesting and sometimes amusing. Their night pictures were faithful and characteristic, being mostly snap shots and surprises. In the daytime they could not altogether avoid having their object known, and, struggle as they might against it, they could not altogether prevent the natural instinct of fixing up for a picture from being followed. When a view was of interest and value as they found it, they were sometimes unable to stop the preparation and posing from almost...

(The entire section is 1856 words.)

Edith Kellogg Dunton (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: A review of The Making of an American, in The Dial, Vol. 32, January 1, 1902, pp. 8-10.

[In the following essay, Dunton presents a review of Riis's autobiography.]

Jacob Riis, reporter, philanthropist, reformer, author of How the Other Half Lives, needs no introduction to the nation whose ideals he could scarce honor more highly than he has done in calling his autobiography The Making of an American.

The most striking quality of his book is undoubtedly its artless frankness, which is at first in equal measure appalling and delightful. But before one has read far, he agrees unqualifiedly with that wise friend of Mr. Riis's...

(The entire section is 2093 words.)

Mary Mills West (essay date 1903)

SOURCE; A review of The Battle with the Slum, in The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 11, March, 1903, pp. 334-35.

[In the following essay, West reviews The Battle with the Slum.]

This latest work of Mr. Riis [The Battle with the Slum] supplements his How the Other Half Lives and A Ten Years' War, and completes the history of a struggle to improve conditions in the tenement-house districts of New York city. The book describes the work of the Tenement-House Commissions of 1894 and 1900, and the voluntary citizens' committee of 1898, which led up to the creation of the present Tenement-House Department; but it is far from being a...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: A review of The Battle with the Slum, in The Nation, Vol. 76, No. 1973, April 23, 1903, pp. 338-39.

[In the following essay, a reviewer for The Nation offers a critique of The Battle with the Slum.]

This book [The Battle with the Slum] would have attracted more attention than it has, but for the fact that most, if not all, of it is a republication. After writing How the Other Half Lives, the author published, three years ago, A Ten Years' War, a series of papers intended to account for the progress of "the battle with the slum" since the first volume appeared. Since that time, as he hints in his preface, a good many things...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Thomas Arthur Gullason (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Brief Articles and Notes: The Sources of Stephen Crane's Maggie," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. IV, October, 1959, pp. 497-502.

[In the following essay, Gullason identifies writersamong them Riiswho influenced Stephen Crane's novel Maggie.]

For over a half-century, Stephen Crane's Maggie (1893) has been linked with European naturalism, particularly with Zola's L'Assomoir.1 A single recent critic, Marcus Cunliffe, admits that while one can draw parallels between Maggie and L'Assomoir the most obvious place to search for possible sources "is not Europe but America: not Zola's Paris...

(The entire section is 2377 words.)

Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: An introduction to How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, edited by Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 1970, pp. vii-xix.

[In the following essay, the editor's introduction of How the Other Half Lives, Warner discusses Riis's classic work.]

This is one of the great books of American journalism. Published in 1890, early in the era of muckraking, How the Other Half Lives stands with Lincoln Steffens' Shame of the Cities (1904) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) for its impact on its own generation and for its lasting ability to secure a reader's emotional assent to the...

(The entire section is 5364 words.)

Park Dixon Goist (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Social Workers, Reformers, and the City, Jane Addams and Jacob Riis," in From Main Street to State Street; Town, City, and Community in America, Kennikat Press, 1977, pp. 80-93.

[In the following excerpt, Goist compares and contrasts Riis's formative experiences with those of another social reformer, Jane Addams.]

The emphasis of the urban novels written by Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry Blake Fuller was essentially on the consequences of city living for individuals. In Garland there is some notice taken of a limited social network in which Rose Dutcher attempts to find her place. In Fuller's novel the Marshall family, though badly weakened by...

(The entire section is 6097 words.)

Louis Fried (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Jacob Riis and the Jews: The Ambivalent Quest for Community," in American Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 5-24.

[In the following essay, Fried examines Riis's interest in, and study of, eastern European Jews.]

There have been few figures in American immigrant history who more tirelessly expounded upon the nature of Americanization than Jacob Riis. Against the steady growth of a disenchanting critical realism assessing the costs of estrangement in American life, Riis continually pointed out how the immigrant's past could comport well with his present. Riis' very achievements—and they surely were no mean ones—led him as well as such differing...

(The entire section is 9612 words.)

Jeffrey S. Gurock (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Jacob A. Riis: Christian Friend or Missonary Foe? Two Jewish Views," in American Jewish History, Vol. 71, No. 1, September, 1981, pp. 29-47.

[In the following essay, Gurock takes a close look at Riis's relationships with Jews.]


A. The Lucas-Riis Letters

On August 14, 1903, the American Hebrew excitedly reported that "a particular settlement house on the lower East Side. . . . that has attracted much attention in the past few years, mainly owing to the fact that one of its patrons is a gentleman of international repute as an advocate and friend of the poor" was not...

(The entire section is 8231 words.)

Further Reading


Fried, Lewis and John Fierst. Jacob A. Riis: A Reference

Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977, 168 p.

A comprehensive listing of writings about Riis from 1899 to 1975, with extensive reference to his collected papers housed in the Library of Congress.


Goist, Park Dixon. "Social Workers, Reformers and the City: Jane Addams and Jacob Riis." In From Main Street to State Street: Town, City, and Community in America, pp. 80-93. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Presents Riis's career alongside that of his contemporary and fellow social reformer Jane...

(The entire section is 436 words.)