Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914) was born in Ribe, Denmark. He immigrated to America at age twenty with hopes of one day marrying his teenage love, Elisabeth Nielsen [Gjørtz]. Riis wandered through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, taking odd jobs as a laborer and salesman, before landing newspaper work in New York City in 1873. Financially established, Riis won Elisabeth’s hand; they married in Ribe in 1876 and settled in New York, where they raised five children. Riis recounted his remarkable life story in The Making of an American, his second national bestseller. In it, he chronicled his years as a homeless immigrant, his love story with his wife, and his enduring friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president of the United States only months before the book’s publication in 1901.

Making it as an American

Jacob Riis’s 1901 autobiography, The Making of an American regaled readers with accounts of the degrading experiences of his early years as a struggling immigrant through his astounding rise as a celebrated writer and confidant of the president of the United States—a story he used to promote his reform causes. In his later years, Riis offered illustrated lantern slide lectures based, in part, on his autobiography. On this opening page of his lecture notes, Riis summarizes his Danish roots and refers to his precarious status upon arriving in America when he notes the ominous directive to “buy a revolver.”

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Becoming American

Riis’s notes for his lecture titled “Making of an American” were drawn from his 1901 autobiography of the same name and his book The Battle with the Slum published in 1902. These notes offer a shorthand account of Riis’s entire career up to that point. Selected pages appear throughout the exhibition and serve as touchstones for Riis’s experience and observations. In these final two pages of the lecture notes, Riis recounts a personal epiphany he experienced while ill during a visit to Denmark in 1900, when he realized he had truly taken on an “American identity.”

Jacob Riis. “The Making of an American,” two pages of handwritten lecture notes. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.03, 019.00.04)

Read the transcript

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Pocket Diary and Telegram

Between September 1871 and August 1875, Riis kept a pocket diary, first in Danish and then in English. Two of his three diaries survive; they recount a period of struggle and painful self-doubt. Riis wrote his final entry on August 16, 1875, after asking for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage. The happy pair married in Ribe, Denmark, in 1876 and raised a family in New York. They remained married for twenty-nine years, until Elisabeth’s untimely death on May 18, 1905. In this May 7, 1905, telegram, Riis urges their son John to hurry home to see his failing mother. Riis was heartbroken at her passing.

Jacob Riis to John Riis. Telegram, May 7, 1905. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00)

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Family Life in Richmond Hill

In 1884, Riis purchased a plot of land in Richmond Hill—today part of Queens, New York, and home to many South Asian, South American, and Caribbean immigrants. In 1886, Riis moved his family into a new house there. In the image above, probably taken in their yard, Riis’s wife Elisabeth is seated and surrounded by their five children.

Jacob Riis. “Our family taken in summer of 1898.” Reproduction from glass plate negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00)

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