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Jacob Riis

Excerpt from How the Other Half Lives

Originally published in 1890; available at Yale University: American Studies Program (Web site)

"In the dog-days when the fierce heat and foul air of the tenements smother their babies by thousands, [abandoned babies] are found … on the doorsteps of the rich, with whose comfort in luxurious homes the wretched mother somehow connects her own misery. Perhaps, as the drowning man clutches at a straw, she hopes that these happier hearts may have love to spare even for her little one."

The Industrial Revolution (approximately 1877–1900) caused America to shift its economy from an agricultural base (one that depended upon the land) to an industrial one. As time passed and technology advanced, skilled craftsmen were replaced with machinery. By 1900, one-third of the country's population was among the industrial workforce.

Those who owned businesses and factories made up the upper classes of American society. The middle class consisted largely of the men who filled executive positions and those who managed workers in those companies. Together with their families, these classes formed about half of American society.

This was the half who often read about themselves or their friends and coworkers in the newspapers, the half for whom magazine articles were written. When people thought of America, this was the half they imagined. Businessmen believed that anyone could succeed through hard work and that they were living proof of that philosophy.

The "other half" of society was the working class. One-third of these laborers were immigrants from other countries who had come to America in search of a better life. Many had sold everything they owned to cross the ocean. Life in America varied little from the lives they left behind, however. These people lived in overcrowded, unclean conditions. Disease was virtually inescapable.

The working class was not paid fairly for its efforts. Many of these laborers worked twelve-hour shifts in jobs no one else wanted, only to come home and work more. Yet 40 percent of them lived below the poverty line of $500 per year. (The poverty line is the minimum amount of money someone can make and still get by.)

Without the working class, the "other half" of American society could not have thrived. The rich got richer while the poor became poorer working for them. Although the upper and middle classes knew their laborers and employees lived in desperate conditions, most of them did little to help. They were more concerned with getting the most work out of them for the least amount of money.

Jacob Riis was born in Denmark in 1849 and immigrated to America in 1870. After months of little work and no luck finding a place to live, Riis fell into despair. Eventually, a friend tipped him off about a job, and Riis went to work as a writer for a news agency. While reporting for the agency, he bought himself a camera and taught himself the art of photography. By 1877, he was known throughout the city for his talent, and took a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. His job took him to police headquarters on Mulberry Street, which ran through the worst slum in the city.

Riis was shocked by the living conditions forced upon the working class. With camera in hand, he walked through the slums, capturing on film not only the cheap construction of the tenement (apartment) buildings found in the inner city but the desperation and hopelessness of its inhabitants as well. In 1888, the photojournalist took a job with the Evening Sun newspaper.

In 1890, Riis took his collection of photographs and wrote text to accompany them. The final product was a groundbreaking book he called How the Other Half Lives. The book established Riis as a muck-raker, or a journalist who used his reporting skills to uncover scandal and corruption. He used his book as a way to force New Yorkers to confront the intense poverty that affected thousands of the city's residents. He discussed the poor construction of the tenements, which were not only cheaply built but also dangerous to those who lived in them. His book included chapters on the high rent, the absentee (unavailable) landlords, the high rate of crime, and the dangerously filthy living conditions.

Things to remember while reading an
excerpt from How the Other Half Lives:

  • Riis's book was among the first of its kind to combine text with photographs to give a complete picture of the plight of America's working poor.
  • The chapter the excerpt is taken from focuses on the orphaned and unwanted children of the city's slums.
  • How the Other Half Lives was published at the beginning of an era of reform. People were just beginning to realize that the changes forced upon America by the Industrial Revolution were bringing about not only drastic change but also widespread social problems such as overcrowding, increased crime, and public sanitation issues.
  • A few years before the publication of Riis's book, journalists Charles Loring Brace and James D. McCabe each had written books about urban poverty. Although they did not have the powerful effect of Riis's book, they did publicize the issues about which Riis was most concerned.
  • Unlike most journalists of the time, Riis was not a sensationalist (someone who focuses on the emotional aspects, often with exaggeration). Instead, he used facts to bolster his arguments for reform. He backed up those facts with evidence, statistics, and firsthand accounts from the working class themselves. This approach earned his book a reputation for accuracy.
  • The barriers Riis wrote about in the excerpt are those he believed charity had unknowingly set up. Riis and many others of his day believed charity in general did not help the poor. They thought that charitable giving did not offer solutions to the growing problem of poverty but only relieved some of the hardships.

Excerpt from How the Other Half Lives

  • 1. FIRST among these barriers is the Foundling Asylum. It stands at the very outset of the waste of life that goes on in a population of nearly two millions of people; powerless to prevent it, though it gather in the outcasts by night and by day. In a score of years an army of twenty-five thousand of these forlorn little waifs have cried out from the streets of New York in arraignment of a Christian civilization under the blessings of which the instinct of motherhood even was smothered by poverty and want. Only the poor abandon their children. The stories of richly-dressed foundlings that are dished up in the newspapers at intervals are pure fiction. Not one instance of even a well-dressed infant having been picked up in the streets is on record. They come in rags, a newspaper often the only wrap, semi-occasionally one in a clean slip with some evidence of loving care; a little slip of paper pinned on, perhaps, with some such message as this I once read, in a woman's trembling hand: "Take care of Johnny, for God's sake. I cannot." But even that is the rarest of all happenings.
  • 2. The city divides with the Sisters of Charity the task of gathering them in. The real foundlings, the children of the gutter that are picked up by the police, are the city's wards. In midwinter, when the poor shiver in their homes, and in the dog-days when the fierce heat and foul air of the tenements smother their babies by thousands, they [abandoned babies] are found, sometimes three and four in a night, in hallways, in areas and on the doorsteps of the rich, with whose comfort in luxurious homes the wretched mother somehow connects her own misery. Perhaps, as the drowning man clutches at a straw, she hopes that these happier hearts may have love to spare even for her little one. In this she is mistaken. Unauthorized babies especially are not popular in the abodes of the wealthy. It never happens outside of the story-books that a baby so deserted finds home and friends at once. Its career, though rather more official, is less romantic, and generally brief. After a night spent at Police Headquarters it travels up to the Infants' Hospital on Randall's Island in the morning, fitted out with a number and a bottle, that seldom see much wear before they are laid aside for a fresh recruit. Few outcast babies survive their desertion long. Murder is the true name of the mother's crime in eight cases out of ten. Of 508 babies received at the Randall's Island Hospital last year 333 died, 65.55 per cent. But of the 508 only 170 were picked up in the streets, and among these the mortality was much greater, probably nearer ninety per cent, if the truth were told. The rest were born in the hospitals. The high mortality among the foundlings is not to be marvelled at. The wonder is, rather, that any survive. The stormier the night, the more certain is the police nursery to echo with the feeble cries of abandoned babes. Often they come half dead from exposure. One live baby came in a little pine coffin which a policeman found an inhuman wretch trying to bury in an up-town lot. But many do not live to be officially registered as a charge upon the county. Seventy-two dead babies were picked up in the streets last year. Some of them were doubtless put out by very poor parents to save funeral expenses. In hard times the number of dead and live foundlings always increases very noticeably. But whether travelling by way of the Morgue or the Infants' Hospital, the little army of waifs meets, reunited soon, in the trench in the Potter's Field where, if no medical student is in need of a subject, they are laid in squads of a dozen.
  • 3. Most of the foundlings come from the East Side, where they are left by young mothers without wedding-rings or other name than their own to bestow upon the baby, returning from the island hospital to face an unpitying world with the evidence of their shame. Not infrequently they wear the bed-tick regimentals of the Public Charities, and thus their origin is easily enough traced. Oftener no ray of light penetrates the gloom, and no effort is made to probe the mystery of sin and sorrow. This also is the policy pursued in the great Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity in Sixty-eighth Street, known all over the world as Sister Irene's Asylum. Years ago the crib that now stands just inside the street door, under the great main portal, was placed outside at night; but it filled up too rapidly. The babies took to coming in little squads instead of in single file, and in self-defence the sisters were forced to take the cradle in. Now the mother must bring her child inside and put it in the crib where she is seen by the sister on guard. No effort is made to question her, or discover the child's antecedents, but she is asked to stay and nurse her own and another baby. If she refuses, she is allowed to depart unhindered. If willing, she enters at once into the great family of the good Sister who in twenty-one years has gathered as many thousand homeless babies into her fold. One was brought in when I was last in the asylum, in the middle of July, that received in its crib the number 20715. The death-rate is of course lowered a good deal where exposure of the child is prevented. Among the eleven hundred infants in the asylum it was something over nineteen per cent last year; but among those actually received in the twelvemonth nearer twice that figure.
  • 5. An infinitely more fiendish, if to surface appearances less deliberate, plan of child-murder than desertion has flourished in New York for years under the title of baby-farming. The name, put into plain English, means starving babies to death. The law has fought this most heinous of crimes by compelling the registry of all baby-farms. As well might it require all persons intending murder to register their purpose with time and place of the deed under the penalty of exemplary fines. Murderers do not hang out a shingle. "Baby-farms," said Mr. Elbridge T. Gerry, the President of the [New York] Society [for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was] charged with the execution of the law that was passed through his efforts, "are concerns by means of which persons, usually of disreputable character, eke out a living by taking two, or three, or four babies to board. They are the charges of outcasts, or illegitimate children. They feed them on sour milk, and give them paregoric to keep them quiet, until they die, when they get some young medical man without experience to sign a certificate to the Board of Health that the child died of inanition, and so the matter ends. The baby is dead, and there is no one to complain." A handful of baby-farms have been registered and licensed by the Board of Health with the approval of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the last five years, but none of this kind. The devil keeps the only complete register to be found anywhere. Their trace is found oftenest by the coroner or the police; sometimes they may be discovered hiding in the advertising columns of certain newspapers, under the guise of the scarcely less heartless traffic in helpless children that is dignified with the pretense of adoption—for cash. An idea of how this scheme works was obtained through the disclosures in a celebrated divorce case, a year or two ago. The [S]ociety has among its records a very recent case of a baby a week old (Baby "Blue Eyes") that was offered for sale—adoption, the dealer called it—in a newspaper. The agent bought it after some haggling for a dollar, and arrested the woman slave-trader; but the law was powerless to punish her for her crime. Twelve unfortunate women awaiting dishonored motherhood were found in her house.
  • 7. It is with a sense of glad relief that one turns from this misery to the brighter page of the helping hands stretched forth on every side to save the young and the helpless. New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers, nowhere such abundance of means ready to the hand of those who know the need and how rightly to supply it. Its poverty, its slums, and its suffering are the result of unprecedented growth with the consequent disorder and crowding, and the common penalty of metropolitan greatness. If the structure shows signs of being top-heavy, evidences are not wanting—they are multiplying day by day—that patient toilers are at work among the underpinnings. The Day Nurseries, the numberless Kindergartens and charitable schools in the poor quarters, the Fresh Air Funds, the thousand and one charities that in one way or another reach the homes and the lives of the poor with sweetening touch, are proof that if much is yet to be done, if the need only grows with the effort, hearts and hands will be found to do it in ever-increasing measure. Black as the cloud is it has a silver lining, bright with promise. New York is to-day a hundredfold cleaner, better, purer, city than it was even ten years ago.

What happened next …

Riis's book was an immediate bestseller and sold well for the next five years. The book brought the plight of the city's poor into the spotlight where it could no longer be ignored.

The book was effective for many reasons. Riis had already developed a reputation as a reliable, honest investigative journalist. He brought those qualifications to his book, and readers felt they could believe what he was saying. The accompanying photographs illustrated the claims he was making. No one could see those photos without noticing the hopeless expressions on the faces of the children, or the weary eyes in the adults.

Riis was the first social commentator to not only reveal the obvious and hidden problems of urban poverty but to present possible solutions as well. Rather than simply complain about the issues and very real hardships of poverty, he presented readers with thoughtful, realistic ways in which the war on poverty could be fought.

Riis knew his readers well. The middle and upper classes had a sense of Victorian values (the standards and morals of the age of Queen Victoria [1819–1901; reigned 1837–1901] in England). Family and home were of the utmost importance. By photographing the squalid (filthy) living conditions of the poor, he challenged those values and made readers understand that what they took for granted—nicely furnished homes in safe buildings, privacy, the ability to stay clean, and money to buy food, clothing, and toys for the children—were not available to the average worker. Many of his photographs included mothers with their children, or children left to roam the streets alone or even sleep in the alleys. These photos did not match the common late-nineteenth-century ideals of how children should be raised.

Riis often photographed his subjects not as the focal point (the main object of focus, as in a portrait) but among their surroundings. These photos in particular gave readers a solid sense of the poverty that affected every part of working-class life.

As Americans gained a more thorough understanding of the issues surrounding poverty and urban slums, reforms were enacted that improved building safety and implemented sanitation standards. Riis had developed a lifelong friendship with the president of the Board of Police Commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). After publication of How the Other Half Lives, the two men would walk the streets of the slums at midnight, with Riis pointing out the tenement workshops. These workshops were actually the homes of the laborers. Working twelve-hour days elsewhere was not bringing in enough money to pay the bills. The laborers would bring their work home so that they could work longer hours and make more money. They knew they were being exploited, but they were powerless to do anything about it.

Riis also took Roosevelt to see the police lodging houses (primitive housing where police brought drunks, the homeless, and petty criminals). The lodging houses were run-down, overcrowded, and disease-ridden. These midnight inspections led to Roosevelt shutting down the lodging houses in 1896 and closing about one hundred cigar-making tenement shops.

As a direct result of his book, Riis soon found himself taking public health officials on tours of the city. This firsthand education led to the destruction of many tenement buildings in 1896 and 1897 and improvements in lighting and ventilation in those left standing. The Tenement House Act of 1901 required tenement landlords to update their existing buildings to adhere to new safety codes. New tenements were to be built with more modern conveniences, including indoor toilets, running water, and windows in every room.

Working for Next to Nothing

Many of the home workers were young children. These children stayed home from school to help supplement the family's inadequate income. Some of these children rolled cigars; others did laundry for the wealthy. Still others did needlework and sewing. What follows is a list of just some of the sewing jobs children and their families would perform into the early morning hours, as well as the amount of additional weekly income brought in by such work.

  • Finishing coats: 6 cents a piece ($2.40 to $3.00)
  • Finishing pants: 6 to 10 cents a pair ($3.00 to $4.20)
  • Making violets: 3 cents per 122 flowers ($2.75 to $3.50)
  • Making little roses: 8 cents per 122 flowers ($2.75 to $4.00)
  • Making large roses: 16 to 18 cents per 122 flowers ($3.00)
  • Making baby dresses: 45 cents a dozen ($3.20 to $5.00). (Sewing up two sides, hemming the skirt, making sleeves and sewing them in, gathering and binding the neck into a band, sewing on one button, and making one button hole.)


Settlement houses were urban centers that provided community services such as health care, kindergarten, and child care for free. Settlement houses had been in existence for two years before Riis's book was published, but his exposé helped America understand the importance of the work the settlement houses did. For example, poor women could take their young children to these settlements, which were located in the middle of the poorest slums. While the children were taken care of at no expense, or, if old enough, attended kindergarten, the mothers were taught valuable skills, such as cooking, sewing, reading, and writing. Since many of the urban poor were immigrants, very few knew how to write anything other than their names, and even fewer were able to read English. Riis's book encouraged the nation's wealthy to donate money to fund these settlement houses.

Did you know …

  • Jacob Riis had a settlement house named after him in 1901. It is located in Long Island, New York.
  • How the Other Half Lives is still considered a landmark in the field of photojournalism.
  • Toilets in the early tenement buildings were built outside, usually one per building, and were not connected to sewage lines. Waste piled up, causing a foul smell and the spread of serious disease. Although landlords were supposed to remove the waste, most left that duty to the tenement dwellers.

Consider the following …

  • Why do you think the middle and upper classes of America had such negative feelings toward the working class?
  • Do slums still exist in the twenty-first century? What social and political factors contribute to their existence?
  • How were children treated and valued differently in the late nineteenth century compared with children in the twenty-first century?

For More Information


Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York: Clarion, 1998.

Pascal, Janet. Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890. Multiple reprints.

Riis, Jacob. The Making of an American. New York: Macmillan, 1901. Multiple reprints.


Crozier, William, Clarke Chambers, Patrick Costello, Chad Gaffield, and Beverly Stadium, eds. "On the Lower East Side: Observations of Life in Lower Manhattan at the Turn of the Century." Tenant Net. (accessed on August 9, 2006).

Davis, Kay. "Documenting 'The Other Half': The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis & Lewis Hine." University of Virginia. (accessed on August 9, 2006).

Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (accessed on August 9, 2006).

Riis, Jacob A. "How the Other Half Lives." Yale University: American Studies Program. (accessed on August 15, 2006).

Foundling Asylum:
Children's orphanage.
Forlorn little waifs:
Helpless, homeless orphans.
A request for help.
Sisters of Charity:
The religious order that ran the Foundling Asylum.
City's wards:
Children in custody of the city.
Hottest days of summer.
Lifetime experiences.
Death rate.
Lack of protection from extreme weather.
Potter's Field:
Graveyard for the city's poor and unwanted.
Bed-tick regimentals:
Clothing made from the cheap, strong fabric made to cover mattresses.
Exemplary fines:
Fines serving as a warning.
Disreputable character:
Bad reputation.
Illegitimate children:
Children born out of wedlock.
A pain-relieving medicine containing opium.
Lack of nourishment.
Awaiting dishonored motherhood:
Pregnant out of wedlock.
Structure shows signs of being top-heavy:
Poor population is increasing.
Behind the scenes, at the bottom.

Riis, Jacob

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