“Bad boys and bad girls are not born, but made…They are made bad by environment and training. The children must have room to play.” –-Jacob Riis
Jacob was the third of fifteen children born to Niels and Carolina Riis. His father was a schoolteacher who occasionally wrote for a local newspaper. Jacob read as much as he could. He tried to sharpen his English skills by reading James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Dickens.
Although Niels had hopes of his eldest son becoming a writer, Jacob wanted to be a carpenter. After completing his apprenticeship in Copenhagen Riis returned to Ribe but found it difficult to find a job. So, in 1870, with help from some friends he decided to emigrate to America.
The job market in America was no better than it was in Copenhagen. Riis lived hand to mouth (at best) spending his nights at police station lodging houses, in a graveyard, and when he could afford it in one of New York’s overcrowded, dark, airless, tenements. He took on any odd job he could find from day laborer, to farmhand, to bricklayer, and, occasionally as carpenter or writer. When his money ran out he begged, scavenged, ate handouts from restaurants and stole fallen apples from orchards.
France had declared war on Germany in 1870 (the Franco–Prussian War) and he wanted to volunteer for the French side to avenge earlier Prussian aggression in Denmark. But he was never able to hook up with a group traveling back to Europe to fight.
“After three years of doing odd jobs, Riis landed a job as a police reporter with the New York Evening Sun. He worked in the poorest, most crime – ridden areas of the city. These were generally neighborhoods where immigrants lived in deplorable tenement houses” [Gateway NPS.Gov]
He developed a writing style that was expressive, dramatic and to the point.
“Aware of what it was like to live in poverty, Riis was determined to use this opportunity to employ his journalistic skills to communicate this to the public. He constantly argued that the “poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate”.” [Spartacus Educational]
although his writing was raising awareness of the plight of the poor, he didn’t think it went far enough in illustrating the dire conditions of the slums of New York. He needed to SHOW the upper and middle class what was going on in the tenements. His first attempt was through sketching, but he quickly realized he didn’t have the artistic skills for that, so he switched to photography.
He embraced the use of flash powder photography and brought his camera into the dark tenement buildings and the alleys at night.
“He began to bring a camera with him to document what he found in these neighborhoods, and the conditions in which these people lived. For this, Riis is considered to be one of the fathers of modern photojournalism. “ [Gateway NPS.Gov]
He partnered with W.L. Craig and went on a Magic Lantern tour with the photographs. During his lectures he pointed out that in Dicken’s London there were 175,00 plus people per square mile, while in the Lower East Side there were 290,000 plus people per square mile.”making it perhaps the worst slum in the history of the Western world.” [Spartacus Educational]
The lecture tours lead to a an article in the 1889 Christmas edition of Scribner’s Magazine. The 18 page article, titled “How the Other Half Lives” turned into a book by the same name, published in 1890.
“His book How the Other Half Lives inspired then police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to close the police lodging houses. It also brought about many needed reforms in housing laws. So important was Riis’s work, that Roosevelt called him “New York’s most useful citizen.” [Gateway NPS.Gov]
Riis spent the rest of his life advocating for the poor. He went on to write over a dozen books, noteably:
- Children of the Poor (1892)
- Out of Mulberry Street (1898)
- The Making of An American (1901)
- The Battle With the Slum (1902)
- Children of the Tenement (1903).
Riis died on May 26, 1914. Seaside Park in Rockaway, New York was renamed “Jacob Riis Park” in his honor.
A nod of thanks to my fabulous hubby who pointed out Riis as a possible Thought of the Day candidate. Good pick, hon.