Riis often said he was not alone in pressing for urban reform. As the Gilded Age ended, his sentimental appeals to Christian empathy were eclipsed by more organized means to combat poverty. New college educated Progressive reformers saw unionization, woman suffrage, protective legislation, and government intervention as ways to achieve far-reaching social change. But Riis had pioneered techniques utilized in the new emerging fields of social work, investigative journalism, and photojournalism. His fieldwork in the streets; case studies of the ill and poor; documentation with a camera; use of public relations; interest in statistics; and close association with government authorities and health officers, all laid groundwork for what was to come.

When on May 25, 1914, Riis died of heart disease at age 65, Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement, eulogized him “for friendship and encouragement and spirited fellowship, for opening up the hearts of a people to emotion, and for the knowledge upon which to guide that emotion into constructive channels.”

Riis’s Hand

As a practitioner of palmistry, Nellie Simmons Meier had a special interest in the hands of famous people. Handprints and character analyses of celebrities formed the basis of her 1937 bestseller, Lions’ Paws. Meier wrote that Jacob Riis was “able to present facts and details in an orderly manner of writing or speaking, thus giving a stirring word picture of the conditions which needed righting.”

Nellie Simmons Meier (d. 1939). 1903 print of Jacob Riis’s right hand with signature and typescript character sketch of Riis published in Lions’ Paws, The Story of Famous Hands. New York, 1937. Nellie Simmons Meier Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (098.00.00, 099.00.00)

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Florence Kelley and the National Consumers League

When Riis was rising to fame in the 1890s, Florence Kelley, a resident of Chicago’s Hull-House Settlement, was working against sweatshops and enforcing work-safety and child labor regulations as a factory inspector in Illinois. In 1899, Kelley moved to Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York, and as a leader of the National Consumers League, she encouraged women to use their buying power to support fair wages, the ten-hour workday, maternal well-being, and children’s rights.

Florence Kelley (1859–1932). “A Privileged Industry” reprinted in Twentieth Century Magazine. Boston, July 1913 [illustrated with photographs by Lewis Hine]. Records of the National Consumers League, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (100.00.00)

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Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee

The National Child Labor Committee campaigned for tougher state and federal laws against the abuses of industrial child labor, and Lewis Hine was its greatest publicist. Hine prepared many of the committee’s fieldwork reports and took some of the most powerful images in the history of documentary photography. He compiled evidence from both fields and factories, documenting children of even very young ages at work in canneries, harvesting vegetables, and keeping machines running in textile plants. Hine showed images of exploited children to audiences on a lecture circuit to sway public opinion in favor of protective legislation.

Lewis Hine (1874–1940). “Photographic Investigation of Child Labor Conditions in Sardine Canneries of Maine, August 1911” and interior and exterior photographs of the Maine sardine canneries. Typescript report and four gelatin silver photographs. Image 2 | Image 3 | Image 4 | Image 5. Papers of the National Child Labor Committee, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (101–105.00.00)

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Jacob A. Riis Settlement House

From the time of its founding in the 1880s as the King’s Daughters’ Settlement, through its rechristening on 48–50 Henry Street in New York City as the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House in 1901, and to the end of his life Riis never stopped raising funds for the organization. Working with the doctors and nurses who inspected the slums, the King’s Daughters provided social services and advocacy for the poor, including sewing and nutrition classes, health care, mother’s clubs, and a summer camp for children. Riis’s much younger second wife, Mary Phillips Riis, remained actively involved in the board after Riis’s death. Now based in Queens, New York, the community-service organization provides immigration and education services and participates in a cultural exchange program with Denmark.

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  • Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement. Twenty-Eighth Annual Report, 1917–1918. Page 2. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (106.00.00)

  • Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement. Attendance figures for Community Work, Club Work, and Summer Work, 1921–1922. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107.00.00)

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It took the passage of another generation and the advent of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s for activists to rediscover Riis. Inspired by Riis’s stirring call to action in How the Other Half Lives, they invoked his name to support ideas foreign to his thinking: providing jobs and housing for the poor through government programs and tax dollars. New Deal reformers like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses perpetuated Riis’s name at the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side and Jacob Riis Park in Far Rockaway, Queens.

In the 1940s, Riis’s photographs were rediscovered, and he entered the narrative of photographic history as a groundbreaking pioneer. Particularly in the 1970s, Riis had become a standard bearer for liberal reform and documentary photography and influenced photographers such as Bob Adelman and Camilo José Vergara, who have created powerful images of the urban environment.

Urban Renewal

New York City Park Commissioner and city planner Robert Moses lauded Jacob Riis in this 1949 article, describing Riis as “a working reporter with a mission” and “a doer, not merely a preacher . . . [who] laid the groundwork for the great reforms which have now passed.” The Jacob Riis Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side were named in honor of Riis and his campaign to upgrade multiple-unit housing available to the poor. The six-to-fourteen-story affordable housing projects were completed in January 1949 as a phase in the city’s urban renewal plan. Grouped in multi-acre complexes bordering Avenue D, they are maintained by the New York City Housing Authority and are home to some 4,500 residents.

Robert Moses (1888–1981). “Living Heritage of Jacob Riis, What He Thought and Did Still Affects the City, and Many of Us Continue to Live by His Ideals,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1949. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (108.00.00, 108.00.01)

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“Old New York,” 1970

Camilo José Vergara is a Chilean-born, New York-based writer, photographer, and documentarian. For more than forty years traveling across the country, Vergara has made photographs that embrace the vitality of urban America and archive its decline. In his words: “Photography for me is a tool for continuously asking questions, for understanding the spirit of a place, and as I have discovered over time, for loving and appreciating cities.” He has also said: “I want to discover what happens to the most desolate corners of Urban America, what new activities and uses emerge, and get glimpses of their future.”

Camilo José Vergara (b. 1944). Lower East Side, 1970; 5th & 110th Streets, East Harlem, 1970; 1970 East Harlem; Avenue C, Lower East Side, 1970, from the series “Old New York, 1970–1973.” Modern prints by the photographer from digital files. Camilo J. Vergara Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (110–113.00.00)

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How the Other Half Still Lives

In the late 1970s, the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a philanthropic foundation, approached photographer and social activist Bob Adelman to photograph the dire state of inner-city housing in New York. The result was the production of fifty hand-bound petitions containing thirty-eight searing images of urban decay that document the heartbreaking toll taken on the inhabitants of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. In an oral interview, Adelman said that the initial idea to appeal directly to the president of the United States about the alarming state of housing for the poor in New York came from Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel and a minister from Harlem. The resulting petition prompted President Jimmy Carter to visit Charlotte Gardens Housing Project in the South Bronx, where some of the photographs were made. The petition’s two-page text was written by Adelman’s friend and collaborator, democratic-socialist activist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962).

Bob Adelman (1930–2016), with text by Michael Harrington (1928–1989). How the Other Half Still Lives . . . A Petition for the Ill-Housed of New York City to the President of the United States. New York: Phelps-Stokes Fund, 1977. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library (109.00.00)

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