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Riis, Jacob

in: People

Jacob Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914): Journalist, Photographer, Social Reformer

By Catherine A. Paul

“‘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

Jacob Riis, American journalist
Jacob Riis, American journalist
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph.3b05563

Jacob August Riis was born May 3, 1849 in Ribe, Denmark and died May 26, 1914 in Barre, Massachusetts. Riis was a notable American newspaper reporter, social reformer, and photographer. His most famous work, How the Other Half Lives (1890), shed light on the plight of the slums in New York City (“Jacob Riis: American journalist,” n.d.).

When he was 21 years old, Riis immigrated to America. As a recent immigrant, he took many types of jobs, which showed him the many sides of his new urban home (“Jacob Riis: American journalist,” n.d.). Moreover, he spent significant time homeless and penniless, surviving on charitable donations of food from religious figures and cooks. At one point, Riis became so desperate that he considering ending his life. However, thanks to a stray dog, Riis persisted (Pascal, 2005).   

In 1873, Riis became a police reporter and was assigned to cover New York City’s Lower East Side (“Jacob Riis: American journalist,” n.d.). This role, as described by Riis, meant he was “the one who gathers and handles all the news that means trouble to some one: the murders, fires, suicides, robberies, and all that sort” (Pascal, 2005). His investigations led him to some stunning discoveries, including the horrible living conditions of New York tenements. He found that some tenement conditions were so abysmal that the infant death rate was 1 in 10. These experiences drove Riis to continue his efforts; by the late 1880’s, Riis was conducting in depth investigations into the conditions of the slums, using flashbulb photography to capture these deplorable conditions (“Jacob Riis: American journalist,” n.d.). These photographs are included in his call-to-conscience for housing reform book, How the Other Half Lives (Yochelson & Czitrom, 2007).

How the Other Half Lives made Riis famous and inspired legislation impacting tenement houses. This book also laid the foundation for muckraking journalism, which became popular in the 1900s (“Jacob Riis: American journalist,” n.d.). Riis’ writings and lectures continue to be relevant in their enduring themes of urban poverty and Americanization. (Yochelson & Czitrom, 2007).

The title of Riis’s autobiography is The Making of an American, written in 1901.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.


“Jacob Riis: American journalist” (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from

Pascal, J. B. (2005). Jacob Riis: Reporter and reformer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yochelson, B & Czitrom, D. (2007). Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure journalism and photography in turn-of-the-century New York. New York, NY: The New Press.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). Jacob Riis (May 3, 1849-May26, 1914) – Journalist, photographer, social reformer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

One Reply to “Riis, Jacob”

  1. […] Jacob Riis was born on this date in 1849. About him it was said, “He hated passionately all tyrannies, abuses, miseries, and he fought them. He was a terror to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements where the poor lived. He had exposed them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results.” […]

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