Based on his own experiences as an immigrant and his knowledge of the slums as a police reporter, Riis advocated for practical solutions to a wide array of social problems. Through lectures, newspaper and magazine articles, and books like How the Other Half Lives (1890) and The Children of the Poor (1892), Riis worked tirelessly to influence public opinion. He met with a hostile reception from New York City’s powerful political machine, Tammany Hall, whose leaders saw well-meaning, middle-class reformers as a threat to their influence. But in 1894, an anti-Tammany reform candidate, William L. Strong, won the mayor’s office and instituted a period of “good government” policies. Among Strong’s appointments was a young Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner. Roosevelt befriended Riis and supported his causes, as Riis advocated for the destruction of the worst of the old tenements, the construction of parks, education for children, and the closing of the dangerous police station lodging houses.
The Children of the Poor
Jacob Riis was very concerned about the impact of poverty on the young, which was a persistent theme both in his writing and lectures. For the sequel to How the Other Half Lives, Riis focused on the plight of immigrant children and efforts to aid them. Working with a friend from the Health Department, Riis filled The Children of the Poor (1892) with statistical information about public health, education, and crime. He argued that teaching immigrant children about American democracy would help to make them productive citizens. For this project, Riis radically changed his approach to his subjects. He established a rapport with the children who posed for him before taking their photograph and included their stories in his text.
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Jacob Riis. “The Making of an American,” handwritten lecture notes. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.06)
Jacob Riis. “The Making of an American,” handwritten lecture notes. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.07)
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From 1854 to 1874, the Children’s Aid Society in New York City established twenty-one industrial schools, which offered academic and technical classes, medical care, and recreational programs to children who, because of the conditions of their impoverishment, could not attend public school. Riis met Katie at the West 52nd Street Industrial School, where he interviewed her and took her portrait. Riis featured her story, as well as those of other children, in his 1892 Scribner’s article illustrated with wood engravings made from Riis’s photographs. Later that year Riis turned his “The Children of the Poor” article into a book of the same name:
This picture shows what a sober, patient, sturdy little thing she was, with that dull life wearing on her day by day. . . . She got right up when asked and stood for her picture without a question and without a smile. “What kind of work do you do?” I asked, thinking to interest her while I made ready. “I scrubs,” she replied, promptly, and her look guaranteed that what she scrubbed came out clean.
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Jacob Riis. “I Scrubs”—Little Katie from the West 52nd Street Industrial School, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (188.8.131.52) (086.00.00)
Jacob Riis. “The Children of the Poor,” Scribner’s Magazine, May 1892. General Collections, Library of Congress (089.00.00)
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3 a.m. in the Sun Office
In a chapter on “The Homeless and Outcast,” in The Children of the Poor, Riis emphasized that most homeless boys were not orphans:
The great mass. . . . of newsboys who cry their “extrees” in the street by day . . . are children with homes who contribute to their family’s earnings, and sleep out, if they do, either because they have not sold their papers or gambled away their money at “craps” and are afraid to go home . . . . In winter the boys curl themselves up on the steam-pipes in the newspaper offices that open their doors at midnight on secret purpose to let them in.
Riis worked for the New York Sun in the 1890s and may have known these boys. Unlike the “Street Arabs” who feigned sleeping to pose for How the Other Half Lives, these boys seem genuinely asleep.
Jacob Riis. Newsboys Sleeping in the Offices of the New York Sun, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (184.108.40.206) (090.00.00)
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The students at an industrial school were asked to share with their parents a handout—“a Voter’s A, B, C, in large type, easy to read”—about an upcoming vote at the school. Riis inserted the handout in his manuscript for his book The Children of the Poor. He believed that children could teach their immigrant parents about the fundamentals of citizenship and that introducing immigrant youth to the principles of American democracy would go a long way toward making them proud citizens. At the Beach Street Industrial School, an administrator asked the students to vote on whether the school day should begin with a salute to the American flag. In The Children of the Poor (open to the illustration of three girls who were selected as election inspectors), Riis observed that “the tremendous show of dignity with which they took their seats at the poll was most impressive.”
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Jacob Riis. Saluting the Flag in the Mott Street Industrial School, 1891–1892. Gelatin silver transparency hand-colored by William T. Gregg. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (220.127.116.11) (087.00.00)
Jacob Riis. The Children of the Poor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892. General Collections, Library of Congress (091.00.00)
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