How the Other Half Lived

My works-in-progress drive my research and presently I am deep into the period 1870-1912, roughly the years known as the Gilded Age in US history. The period was marked by tremendous industrial and economic growth, but underneath the glitter lay uncomfortable truths. Mark Twain christened it in his satirical work The Gilded Age: a Tale of Today. In the novel, he shines a harsh spotlight on the realities of the period. While robber barons were amassing unbelievably enormous fortunes, the workers whose labor created the wealth lived and worked in deplorable conditions.

Twain was not the only writer to use his creative skills to prick the conscience of the reading public. Jacob Riis is one of the best known chroniclers of the Gilded Age. His book, How the Other Half Lives, recorded in words and pictures how the denizens of New York City’s tenements lived in a time before the Occupational Heath and Safety Administration (OHSA), minimum wage laws, labor unions, collective bargaining, and child labor laws.

One of fifteen children born to a school teacher in Ribe, Denmark in 1849, Riis immigrated to the United States at age 21 with $40 in his pocket and a gold locket with a strand of hair from his girlfriend back home. During his early years in the US, he worked menial jobs and experienced first hand the squalid living conditions he would later describe in the words and photographs that would so shock his readers.

While the title of Riis’s most famous work uses the words “other half” to describe the persons about whom he wrote, in reality his subjects made up the majority of New York’s population. They were the wretched urban poor who lived crammed together in the airless, dark tenement slums of Lower Manhattan and worked twelve or more hour-days for wages that were barely sufficient to allow body and soul to remain together.

In 1873, Riis moved out of the ranks of day wage earners into journalism as a journalist-in-training at the New York News Association. He excelled at his work and moved on to variousr publications, eventually landing at the New York Tribune assigned to the police beat in Lower Manhattan. It was during this phase that he began to write about the conditions he observed and which he had experienced himself when he was a new immigrant. He found that simply writing about them, however, was not enough. In order to truly get his point across to a mostly oblivious, apathtetic public, his readers needed to “see,” as well. To that end, he taught himself photography and began photographing the slums, saloons, tenements, and streets of New York City where the poorest of the poor eked out a meager existence.

He employed a new technology, the flash function, which allowed him to use his camera at night and in the dimly lit tenement interiors. When magazines were not interested in publishing his work, Riis organized speaking tours where he showed his slides and shared his observations and experiences. It was at one of his lectures that he met a magazine editor who agreed to publish How the Other Half Lives. It would go on to make Riis famous and draw the attention of future US president Theodore Roosevelt. Together, they investigated police practices in New York when Roosevelt was police commissioner leading to improvements.

Riis’s work on behalf of the poor led to legislation requiring improved living conditions among other things. He and his photographic work were also instrumental in eliminating a source of disease. Realizing that municipalities upstream from New York were dumping their sewage in the the city’s drinking water source, his photographs and the testimony he collected from doctors provided the proof needed to convince New York City to purchase the land around New Croton Reservoir in the fight against cholera outbreaks.

Riis went on to publish other books and was a notable figure in the fight for improving the lives of the downtrodden underclasses during his lifetime. He died May 26, 1914 on the farm in Barre, Massachusetts purchased with his second wife.

Books by Jacob Riis

“‘Are you not looking too much to the material condition of these people,’ said a good minister to me after a lecture in a Harlem church last winter, ‘and forgetting the inner man?’ I told him, ‘No! For you cannot expect to find an inner man to appeal to in the worst tenement house surroundings. You must first put the man where he can respect himself.’” – Jacob Riis

Photographs Featured in How the Other Half Lives

5 cents Spots” – 5 cents buys a place to sleep
Tenements in deplorable, dangerous conditions

A man atop a make-shift bed that consists of a plank across two barrels.