Jacob Riis wrote his first (and now enduringly famous) book, How the Other Half Lives (1890) late at night “while the house slept.” He recalled: “It was my habit to light the lamps in all the rooms of the lower story and roam through them with my pipe, for I do most of my writing on my feet.” The book was a bestseller. Riis continued to pursue his activism through writing. His long stint as a police reporter, first with the New York Tribune and then the New York Evening Sun, ended in 1901, but Riis continued to produce a stream of freelance articles for newspapers and literary magazines like Scribner’s, the Century, and the Churchman. He also published nearly a dozen influential books involving urban reform, including The Children of the Poor (1892), A Ten Years’ War (1900), The Making of an American (1901), and The Battle with the Slum (1902).
Shedding Light in Dark Places
Wood engravings of Riis’s photographs published in How the Other Half Lives maximized the impact of his powerful text. Notorious lodging houses in New York charged customers seven cents or more a night for a bed, or five cents to sleep crowded illegally on the floor. Riis accompanied the sanitary police on a raid of one such lodging house and took this photograph of a room thirteen feet square, in which he observed, “slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor.” Riis and his colleagues took three photographs of an opium joint in Chinatown. This photograph shows a man dozing on a platform with his smoking implements nearby and an attendant looking on. Riis explained that “these hapless victims of a passion once acquired, demands the sacrifice of every instinct of decency to its insatiable desire.”
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Jacob Riis. Five-Cent Spot, 1888–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (184.108.40.206) (061.00.00)
Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence (1858–1936), and Henry G. Piffard (1842–1910). Opium in a Joint, 1887–1888. Vintage gelatin printing out paper on board. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (220.127.116.11) (060.00.00)
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“How the Other Half Lives”
Riis received his first break when two Scribner’s Magazine editors attended his “Other Half” lecture and invited him to publish it as an article. The resulting piece featured twenty wood engravings based on Riis’s photographs and was the highlight of the magazine’s 1889 Christmas issue. As this receipt shows, Riis was paid $150 for the article, equivalent to a month’s newspaper salary.
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Words on the Page
Riis dreamed of converting his “Other Half” lecture into a book: he drafted a title page, had it printed, and submitted it to the Library of Congress for copyright in 1888. He got his lucky break from Scribner’s. A year after the illustrated article appeared in Scribner’s Magazine (December 1889), Scribner’s published Riis’s work in book form, How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890). One Riis admirer, the poet James Russell Lowell, permitted Riis to use a portion of his poem “A Parable” as the epigraph. The poem tells of Christ chastising those who honor him with displays of wealth while neglecting the poor.
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Writing the Book
How the Other Half Lives has long been recognized as a classic in the “muckraking” reform tradition. Riis reworked his lecture notes and various stories he wrote as a journalist into the book. He incorporated vignettes about individuals written from observation or based on interviews with people he met or photographed. He also collaborated closely with Dr. Roger S. Tracy, Registrar of Records in the Health Department, and other authorities to understand the statistical and sociological data that underlay the conditions he saw manifested in the streets and tenement houses.
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