- Free Essays, Term Papers & Book Notes

Jacob Riis - an American Social Reformer and Newspaper Reporter

Page 1 of 4

Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was an American social reformer and newspaper reporter.  He is known as one of the first journalists to use a flash camera in reporting.  Using his journalism and camera skills, he reported and captured the images of the horrific living conditions in the slums of New York City.  He is most notably known for his book, “How the Other Half Lives”.  His work inspired many reforms to the lower/working class housing.  Riis’s foundation continues to impact in today's reporting.

During a time when industrialization in America was growing, so was immigration.  The increase in factory businesses caused many rural Americans and immigrants to flock to the urban cities in search for work.  Because of this, cities became overpopulated and crowded.  The overpopulated cities led to an increase in crime rates and diseases began to spread.  Workers lived in buildings such as warehouses that were divided into small unsanitary dwellings.  One of the residents in this area was Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark.  After bouncing from job to job, Riis received a job as a police reporter (Britannica).  It was then that Riis realized he could use his own experiences of being poor and witnessing the conditions of the city slums in order to make a difference.

While working as the police reporter, he was able to capture the darkest corners of the New York slums in its natural state because most of the crimes were done in the night hours.  He began to publish articles with photographs to not only explain, but visually enlighten the public of his findings.  From the dark shadowy streets, the poison filled housing, to the sweatshops for work, he documented the evidence of hardships of the poor and criminals.  

Riis used his photographs along with collected photographs from others.  In doing so, he was able to bring attention to the neglected society living in the filthy conditions in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  He believed that improvements to living and working conditions would give people hope to pursue better lives.  His eighteen-page article, How the Other Half Lives was first publicized in Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner's Magazine.  The section included nineteen photographs. The shocked reaction from the readers led Riis to elaborate further and turn it into a book.  How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York was published in 1890 (Biography).  If the introduction wasn’t enough to get the reader’s attention, where he wrote, “is dark enough, drawn from the plain public records, to send a chill to any heart,” (Britannica) the images most certainly would do the trick.

In the book How the Other Half Lives, Riis’s hypothesis was that the reason for the poverty in these cities was directly related the conditions of their surroundings.  He divided each call to action in sections.  He wrote about crime, miserable unsanitary working and living conditions, diseases and illnesses.  He described the housing system and how it failed due to greed and neglect from wealthier class. He claimed there was a connection between the high crime rate and the behavior of the poor was caused because of their housing situations, or lack thereof.  Page after page he used his unique writing style and photographs to expose the lifestyles of the poor.  He claimed that if the conditions improved, that it would uplift the people to be better.  Riis tried to convince his readers that the poor weren’t poor by choice.  The dangerous and unhealthy conditions where they worked and lived were results of a poor managed society.  He concluded the book with a plan of how to fix the problem.

Download as (for upgraded members)
Citation Generator

(2019, 02). Jacob Riis - an American Social Reformer and Newspaper Reporter. Retrieved 02, 2019, from

"Jacob Riis - an American Social Reformer and Newspaper Reporter" 02 2019. 2019. 02 2019 <>.

"Jacob Riis - an American Social Reformer and Newspaper Reporter.", 02 2019. Web. 02 2019. <>.

"Jacob Riis - an American Social Reformer and Newspaper Reporter." 02, 2019. Accessed 02, 2019.