Biography of Jacob Riis

His Writings and Photographs Brought Attention to Slum Conditions

Photographic portrait of journalist Jacob Riis.
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Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, became a journalist in New York City in the late 19th century and devoted himself to documenting the plight of working people and the very poor.

His work, especially in his landmark 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, had an enormous impact on American society. At a time when American society was advancing in terms of industrial strength, and vast fortunes were being made in the era of robber barons, Riis documented urban lives and honestly depicted a grim reality many would have happily ignored.

The gritty photographs Riis took in slum neighborhoods documented the coarse conditions endured by immigrants. By raising concern for the poor, Riis helped to spur social reforms. 

Early Life of Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark on May 3, 1849. As a child he was not a good student, preferring outdoor activities to studies. Yet he developed a love of reading.

A serious and compassionate side emerged early in life. Riis saved money which he gave to a poor family when he was 12 years old, on the condition that they use it to improve their lot in life.

In his late teens, Riis moved to Copenhagen and became a carpenter, but had trouble finding permanent work. He returned to his hometown, where he proposed marriage to Elisabeth Gortz, a longtime romantic interest. She rejected his proposal, and Riis, in 1870, at the age of 21, emigrated to America, hoping to find a better life.

Early Career in America

For his first few years in the United States, Riis had trouble finding steady work. He wandered about, existed in poverty, and was often harassed by the police. He began to realize life in America was not the paradise many immigrants imagined. And his vantage point as a recent arrival to America helped him develop enormous sympathy for those struggling in the nation's cities.

In 1874 Riis got a low-level job for a news service in New York City, running errands and occasionally writing stories. The following year he became associated with a small weekly newspaper in Brooklyn. He soon managed to buy the paper from its owners, who were having financial difficulties.

By working tirelessly, Riis turned the weekly newspaper around and was able to sell it back to its original owners at a profit. He returned to Denmark for a time and was able to get Elisabeth Gortz to marry him. With his new wife, Riis returned to America.

New York City and Jacob Riis

Riis managed to get a job at the New York Tribune, a major newspaper which had been founded by the legendary editor and political figure Horace Greeley. After joining the Tribune in 1877, Riis rose to become one of the newspaper's leading crime reporters.

During 15 years at the New York Tribune Riis ventured into rough neighborhoods with policemen and detectives. He learned photography, and using early flash techniques involving magnesium powder, he began photographing the squalid conditions of New York City slums.

Riis wrote about poor people and his words had an impact. But people had been writing about the poor in New York for decades, going back to the various reformers who periodically campaigned to clean up neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points. Even Abraham Lincoln, months before he formally began running for president, had visited the Five Points and witnessed efforts to reform its residents.

By smartly using a new technology, flash photography, Riis could have an impact that went beyond his writings for a newspaper. 

With his camera, Riis captured images of malnourished children dressed in rags, immigrant families jammed into tenements, and alleyways filled with garbage and dangerous characters.

When the photographs were reproduced in books, the American public was shocked.

Major Publications

Riis published his classic work, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. The book challenged standard assumptions that the poor were morally corrupt. Riis argued that social conditions held people back, condemning many hard-working people to lives of grinding poverty.

How the Other Half Lives was influential in alerting Americans to the problems of the cities. It helped inspire campaigns for better housing codes, improved education, put an end to child labor, and other social improvements.

Riis gained prominence and published other works advocating reforms. He also became friends with future president Theodore Roosevelt, who was running his own reform campaign in New York City. In a legendary episode, Riis joined Roosevelt on a late-night walk to see how patrolmen were performing their jobs. They discovered some had deserted their posts and were suspected of sleeping on the job.

The Legacy of Jacob Riis

Devoting himself to the cause of reform, Riis raised money to create institutions to help poor children. He retired to a farm in Massachusetts, where he died on May 26, 1914.

During the 20th century, the name Jacob Riis became synonymous with efforts to improve the lives of the less fortunate. He is remembered as a great reformer and a humanitarian figure. New York City has named a park, a school, and even a public housing project after him.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Jacob Riis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Biography of Jacob Riis. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Jacob Riis." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).