Jacob Riis traveled the United States several months out of the year—and, on occasion, abroad—delivering rousing illustrated lantern slide lectures. His presentations drew crowds that ranged in size from less than one hundred to several thousand. Riis had gained wide recognition for his early “Other Half” lecture in 1888–1889. In later years, he offered lectures on his second bestselling book, the autobiographical, The Making of an American (1901) and his 1902 book The Battle with the Slum. He found audiences in churches, charitable organizations, and schools receptive to his crusading message of social change.

His fame allowed him to retire as a police reporter in 1901 and rely on lecturing as his primary source of income. For several months out of the year, he crisscrossed the country, even after a serious heart attack in 1900 and against doctor’s orders. Riis’s 1901 autobiography The Making of an American, in which he regaled readers with accounts of the degrading experiences of his early years as a struggling immigrant, consolidated his status as a celebrity and resonated with audiences across the country. A newspaper account of Riis’s 1911 lecture in San Jose, California, noted: “Simply as the story was told, it held the listeners wrapt. ‘If,’ said [Riis] in closing, ‘the story of one plain immigrant lad helps you to look with kind eyes on one little unfortunate lad I shall think my words well spoken.’”

On the Lecture Circuit

Riis filled a scrapbook with letters, reports, and reviews of his first lecture, “How the Other Half Lives and Dies in New York.” On the title page, he wrote: Press Comments on the lecture / “The Other Half” / how it lives and dies in New York. / illustrated with 100 photographic views / by Jacob A. Riis / Delivered for the first time / January 25th 1888 / before the Amateur Photographers’ Association / at 122 West 36th St / New York. Riis was a strong supporter of the King’s Daughters’ Tenement House Committee, a Lower East Side social service organization. In 1890, he lectured to raise funds for a permanent headquarters, and 48 Henry Street was acquired in 1892. Advertisements promised groups who hosted Riis’s lectures that they would be “both entertained and instructed.” In 1901, the organization was renamed the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House. The agency relocated to Queens in 1952 and maintains a lasting legacy of advocacy, education, and programs for the poor.

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  • “Press Comments” manuscript page and four clippings from newspaper reviews in the New York Herald, New York Tribune, New York News, and the Long Island [NY] Jamaica Farmer, January–February 1888 from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00, 067.00.00)

  • Advertisement for lecture to benefit the King’s Daughters’ Tenement House Committee, 1890. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (023.00.02)

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Friendship with Theodore Roosevelt

By the time President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 letter reached the address in Santa Barbara, California, where Riis had taken ill while on a lecture tour, Riis had already moved on to the southern portion of his itinerary. Roosevelt was affectionate with his friend “Jake” and generous in his hospitality. Here he writes on White House stationery to express concern for Riis’s welfare and to invite Riis and family members to attend his inauguration in Washington. Roosevelt rose to the executive office from the vice presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 and began his first full term as an elected president on March 4, 1905.

Theodore Roosevelt to Jacob Riis, January 29, 1905. Typed letter signed, with envelope. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (082.00.00 and 083.00.00)

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A Transcript of a “Story in Pictures”

This pamphlet contains the only printed version of Riis’s lecture “How the Other Half Lives.” The lecture was delivered at the First Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., on November 9, 1891. In parentheses, the printed transcript indicates the pictures that were shown and the places where the audience laughed or applauded. In the margin of the first page, Riis wrote: “This is the only stenographic report taken of my lecture. It is not an extra good one, or rather it is not a report of an extra good lecture, . . . . As I speak without notes, from memory and to the pictures, the result is according to how I feel. The occasion was a success, however, from the standpoint of the audience, which was very large.”

“The Other Half and How They Live; Story in Pictures,” in Christians at Work, Proceedings of the Sixth Convention of Christian Workers in the United States and Canada, Washington, D.C. First Congregational Church, November 5–11, 1891 taken from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

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From the Road

Jacob Riis kept in close contact with family and friends as he traveled the country, particularly his wife and daughter Kate. The Library’s Riis collection includes letters detailing his observations and picture postcards showing places he visited. For several months out of the year, Riis crisscrossed the country, often despite poor health. Riis’s twelve appointment books on view chronicle the grueling schedule of public lectures he maintained from 1902 until his death in 1914. The open book reveals that despite the likelihood of harsh weather, Riis scheduled lectures from Memphis, Tennessee, to Columbia, Missouri, between February 7 and February 20, 1909.

Jacob Riis’s appointment books, 1902–1914. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00–070.00.00)

Read the transcript

Postcards

Picture postcards sent by Riis to family members from the states of Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota, California, and New Hampshire; the District of Columbia; and the countries of Belgium, Algeria, Denmark, Germany, and Austria, between 1902 and 1908. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (001, 071–081, 117–119.00.00)

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    Indian Totem Pole, Seattle, Wash.

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    Madison Street Cable Incline, Seattle, Wash.

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    Madison Street Cable Incline, Seattle, Wash. (reverse)

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    Mount Tacoma and City of Tacoma.

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    Mount Tacoma and City of Tacoma. (reverse)

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    The Old Oak at Sale, N.J.

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    The Old Oak at Sale, N.J. (reverse)

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    Birds eye View of Duluth, Minn.

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    Birds eye View of Duluth, Minn. (reverse)

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    Picking Oranges near Snow Fields, Southern California.

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    Picking Oranges near Snow Fields, Southern California. (reverse)

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    On a California Mountain Trail. At Mt. Lowe.

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    On a California Mountain Trail. At Mt. Lowe. (reverse)

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    Mt. St. Helens in Winter, Altitude 10,000 Feet.

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    Mt. St. Helens in Winter, Altitude 10,000 Feet. (reverse)

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    White House, Washington, D.C.

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    White House, Washington, D.C. (reverse)

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    Mount Lafayette, from Artist's Bluff.

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    Mount Lafayette, from Artist's Bluff. (reverse)

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    Ribe. Ved Domkirken.

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    Ribe. Ved Domkirken. (reverse)

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    Alger. Intérieur de la mosquée el-Djedid.

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    Alger. Intérieur de la mosquée el-Djedid. (reverse)

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    Red Star Line. Antwerpen-New York. Antwerpen-Boston.

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    Red Star Line. Antwerpen-New York. Antwerpen-Boston. (reverse)

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    Reichspost.

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    Reichspost. (reverse)

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    Friedberg.

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    Friedberg. (reverse)

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Lantern Slide, Mulberry Street

Beginning in 1900, Riis acquired numerous photographs to illustrate his books, articles, and lectures. He numbered the negatives and organized them into an inventory including this famous image of Mulberry Street marketed as a hand-colored lantern slide and as a postcard by the Detroit Publishing Company. The image has come to exemplify the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century with the street teaming with people, and the crowded tenements seemingly ready to burst out of the picture frame.

Detroit Publishing Company. Mulberry Street, after 1905. Gelatin silver transparency, hand colored. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.2.215)

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