Jacob Riis

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Jacob Riis

By | October 2010
Page 1 of 3
Jacob Riis

It was 1890, a difficult time in the still young America, when author Jacob Riis won international acclaim for this bestseller of that year, “How the Other Half Lives,” an in-depth expose on the desperate and squalid conditions of New York City’s tenements and slums. Riis’ book provided impetus to a sanitary reform movement that began in the 1840s and ultimately culminated in New York State’s landmark Tenement House Act of 1901.

Jacob August Riis, journalist, author, photographer and social reformer, was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849 and immigrated to the United States in 1870 at the age of 21. During those early years, he worked at a variety of jobs through many states and familiarized himself with the life of many of his fellow immigrants who worked as itinerant laborers.

Exercising a unique blend of investigative reporting and insightful photography, Riis helped to expose the horrendous conditions of the slums in which the lower classes of New York City lived. By 1877, he was working as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In 1888, he became a reporter for the New York Evening Sun.

Working in the field as a reporter enabled Jacob to write stories about the slums and learned the notion that social problems like poverty and unemployment can be solved through government action. When Immigrants first arrived in America, various types of jobs were available to men and women at dockyards, gas refineries, ironworks, slaughterhouses, book publishers, sweatshops, and factories producing everything from clocks, pencils, and glue, to cakes, beer, and cigars. The work was not always safe and the work environment was not always healthy. The workers were not always provided with all the necessary equipment to complete the job successfully. These types of jobs relied heavily on hard labor, long hours and harsh working conditions-all for very little wages.

At the beginning of the 20th century 25% of the population was living in...