Tag Archives: New York City

Jacob Riis 5.3.13 Thought of the Day

“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

English: Jacob Riis, American journalist.

English: Jacob Riis, American journalist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacob August Riis was born on this day in Ribe, Denmark, on 3rd May, 1849. Today is the 164th anniversary of his birth.

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.

English: "Bandit's Roost, 1890, New York ...

English: “Bandit’s Roost, 1890, New York City.” Photograph by Jacob Riis, featured in his book How the Other Half Lives (1890) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

"Minding Baby" [Image Courtesy: The Old Photo Album]

“Minding Baby” [Image Courtesy: The Old Photo Album]


A nod of thanks to my fabulous hubby who pointed out Riis as a possible Thought of the Day candidate. Good pick, hon.


Alexander Hamilton 1.11.13 Thought of the Day

“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”
Alexander Hamilton

Oil on canvas portrait of Alexander Hamilton b...

Oil on canvas portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alexander Hamilton was born on this day in Charlestown, Nevis, British  West Indies in 1755 (or 1757). It is the 258th (255th) anniversary of his birth.

Hamilton was born to humble beginnings. He was conceived during an extramarital affair between Rachel Fawcett Lavine and James Hamilton. When Lavine’s husband threw mother and son out of the house she moved in with James Hamilton. But he abandoned the little family  to return to Scotland for financial reasons. Lavine relied on the kindness of family members and friends to help raise the boy.

English: Source: http://alexanderhamiltonexhib...

English: Source: http://alexanderhamiltonexhibition.com/timeline/timeline1.html, original source stated as Library of congress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because he was illegitimate he was not allowed to enroll at the Church of England school, however he was given some tutoring and private lessons, and had the family library at his disposal  to read both Greek and Latin.

Around the age of ten the family moved to the nearby island of St. Croix where his mother died soon after. Friends and relatives took an interest in the future of the young Hamilton by encouraging him to work as a mercantile clerk and to read and write, activities at which he excelled despite his lack of proper schooling. [Brandywide Battlefield Historic Site — Alexander Hamilton]

He wrote an essay about a hurricane that had hit the island in the summer 1772 for the local paper. Influential readers of the paper were so impressed with the essay that the started a fund to send Hamilton to America for formal education. By late 1773 he was enrolled in King’s College (now Columbia) in New York City. While at King’s College he wrote his first political essays.

With war pending, Hamilton immersed himself in the study of artillery tactics and military maneuvers. In March of 1776, he joined the New York Artillery, and was recommended for an officer’s commission by General Alexander McDougall. He was thereby given the title “Captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery.” [Ibid]

He proved “a conscientious and business-like leader.” After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Trenton Hamilton was appointed as an aide to George Washington. He was a close advisor to the general for the rest of the war.

He wrote Washington’s critical letters, and composed numerous reports on the strategic reform and restructuring of the Continental Army….While serving as an adviser for George Washington, Hamilton had come to realize Congress’ weaknesses, including jealousy and resentment between states, which, Hamilton believed, stemmed from the Articles of Confederation. … Hamilton left his adviser post in 1782, convinced that establishing a strong central government was the key to achieving America’s independence… [Biography.com]

English: US Postage stamp: Alexander Hamilton,...

English: US Postage stamp: Alexander Hamilton, issue of 1956, $5, black (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hamilton worked as part of the New York delegation to fix the Articles of Confederation. Among other things, he was a strong advocate for a central source of revenue. Although he didn’t help write the Constitution he did help get it ratified. He wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Paper.

He was appointed Secretary of the Treasury  when George Washington was elected President. Hamilton served in that post from 1789-1795.

Hamilton was fatally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr  on July 11, 1804. He died the next day in New York City.

An artistic rendering of the July 11, 1804 due...

An artistic rendering of the July 11, 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton by J. Mund. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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