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Becoming Jacob Riis

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(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)

The Library of Congress exhibit Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives’ explores the work of a pioneering Danish-American photojournalist and social reformer. The Library’s Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) papers and Riis’s photographs from the Museum of the City of New York have been brought together for the first time to tell the story of an immigrant who gained national prominence in his fight against social injustice. In the words of Riis’s friend and admirer, Theodore Roosevelt,

He did not come to this country until he was almost a young man; but if I were asked to name a fellow-man who came nearest to being the ideal American citizen, I should name Jacob Riis.

Jacob August Riis
Jacob August Riis

Much has been written about Riis’s exposé journalism and use of photographs in uncovering New York City’s squalid housing conditions, poverty, disease, and crime, while fighting for education, work, and open spaces for the poor. Riis pioneered the use of photography in reporting, and was a forerunner in the use of flash photography — initially simply lighting magnesium powder in a frying pan — which enabled him to take pictures of slum conditions at night. During his many lecture tours, Riis also used so-called “lantern slides” on early projectors, or lanterns, to outstanding effect. It was reported that “his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted, even talked to the photographs.” Less consideration, however, has been given to the role that Riis’s formative years played in making him a champion for the underprivileged.

When looking at a social reformer such as Jacob Riis, it is hard to tell what exactly caused him to evolve into such a tenacious fighter for justice. Was it his personality, his family background, education, experiences, or just an accident of fate? Did Riis’s Danishness play a role?

By virtue of the fact that Jacob’s father, Niels Edvard, was a senior lecturer at the local cathedral school in the town of Ribe, and thus of the local intelligentsia, the Riis family was part of the town’s “official” class, which included the local clergy, doctors, government officials, and instructors of the cathedral school. However, like most of his siblings, Jacob chose not to pursue an academic career. After leaving school at age 15, Jacob moved to Copenhagen for a carpentry apprenticeship and eventually became a “duly enrolled carpenter of the guild of Copenhagen.” Compared to the somnolent and almost medieval Ribe, Copenhagen was a bustling center of activity. The Danish capital was also remarkably democratic, and Jacob was actually able to meet people like King Christian IX and Hans Christian Andersen as these venerable gentlemen went about town. Though not devoid of poverty, neither Ribe nor Copenhagen contained squalid destitution to the extent that Riis later encountered in the large metropolis of New York.

Jacob Riis left Denmark for the United States at the age of 21 because of a disappointment in love. The girl, Elisabeth Giørtz, whom Riis had admired for many years, turned down his marriage proposal. Elizabeth’s family was the richest in Ribe, and Jacob, as an underemployed carpenter, had little to offer, apart from his fervent feelings. The notion of sailing to America was not an unusual one in Riis’s day. It has been estimated that between 1820 and 1920 approximately ten percent of the entire Danish population left for the United States, as did so many other European emigrants. Most of Riis’s countrymen were motivated by the hope for a better economic future, but given the large proportion of young men in the stream of people setting out, broken hearts may not have been that uncommon, either.

Looking for a better future in America was a well-known concept in Denmark. In fact, the enthusiasm for emigration was known as “America fever.” As early as 1835, the poet Christian Winther made fun of it in his humorous poem, “Flugten til America,” (The Flight to America). Here the young Peter, after a scolding, decides to flee to America, a delightful place in which sweets are easily available everywhere, and school is optional. In 1836, Hans Christian Andersen poked gentle fun at the vision of America as the promised land in his satirical song lyrics, “Brødre, meget langt herfra” (Brothers, very, very far). In the musical play, “Festen paa Kenilworth,” the lazy adventurer Michael Lambourne sings America’s praises with his drinking buddies. In America, fields are full of gold and silver, and pre-roasted pigeons may be found in their nests. Too bad that America is so very, very far!

Riis left on the tail end of the first really large wave of Danish emigrants who began departing in great numbers in the 1860s. Many of these Danes settled where land was available — in the Midwest or even farther. Unlike most of his countrymen who headed west, Riis instead wandered around Pennsylvania, New York state, and New Jersey engaging in a number of activities. As he later wrote:

I was out to twist the wheel of fortune my way when I could get my hands upon it. I never doubted that I should do that sooner or later, if only I kept doing things. That Elisabeth should ever marry anybody but me was preposterously impossible, no matter what she or anybody said.

Contrary to the favorite American archetype of the penniless immigrant making good, Riis was relatively well situated when he arrived in New York. He already knew English because his father had made sure that his children read Dickens in the original language. Moreover, Riis had letters of introduction to the Danish Consul and to someone helpful in the American Banknote Company. The $40 with which he arrived, equivalent to a workingman’s monthly salary, consisted partly of his own savings and partly of donations made by well-wishing friends.

When Jacob occasionally became destitute during his first three years in the United States, it was generally because of his own youthful impulsive decisions. For instance, upon arriving in New York, and prompted by visions of the Wild West, Riis wrote that he spent half of his money buying a “navy revolver of the largest size” and displaying it proudly, until a friendly policeman suggested it was best to leave the gun at home.

Peddler Who Slept in a Cellar, New York City by Jacob Riis, circa 1890.
Peddler who slept in a cellar, New York City by Jacob Riis, circa 1890.

Between 1870 and 1873 the young and enthusiastic Jacob Riis wandered around looking for “the wheel of fortune.” Although he might easily have settled down as a qualified carpenter, Jacob’s quest led him to an astonishing variety of enterprises. Among other things he tried ironworking, coal mining, carpentry, farming, brick making, wood chopping, ice harvesting, lecturing, and being a salesman. Riis’s patriotic Danish sentiments led him to leave jobs recklessly and look for opportunities to join the French in the fight against Prussia, Denmark’s most hated enemy at the time. These economically rash moves led him into situations where he was brought to associate with, and really see, the needs of society’s poorest. In his autobiography, “The Making of An American,” Riis wrote of the times that were deeply etched in his memory:

I joined the great army of tramps, wandering about the streets in the daytime with the one aim of somehow stilling the hunger that gnawed at my vitals, and fighting at night with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or doorway.

It does seem that for a remarkably well educated and kindhearted immigrant to the United States, the contrast between Riis’s past in Denmark and the circumstances to which he was exposed in New York acted as an impetus to expose the plight of the underprivileged in his new homeland.

Riis’s father Niels Edvard and wife Elisabeth “Lammet.” His mother Caroline is standing in the doorway. Denmark, 1893.
Riis’s father Niels Edvard and wife Elisabeth “Lammet.” His mother Caroline is standing in the doorway. Denmark, 1893.

In 1873 Jacob Riis stumbled into the newspaper business. This was not as improbable as it might seem. Riis’s father had edited the local newspaper in Ribe, and Jacob had helped him with the cutting and pasting. Riis’s father had also hoped that Jacob would become a writer. As a schoolmaster familiar with what young people were capable of, the father had clearly observed Jacob’s vivid style of writing, the telling phrase and the ability to turn an anecdote to good use.

Prospering in the newspaper business, Riis was able to go back to Denmark and fulfill his long-held wish to marry Elisabeth, whose fiancé had died after a long illness. Jacob’s father was able to see the 1890 publication of Jacob’s groundbreaking book, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York,” a work that is still in print today. Finding contentment and purpose, Jacob Riis increasingly settled into being an American journalist, author, and lecturer.

Roosevelt’s Farewell to His Officers by L.M. Glackens. N.Y. : J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., 1908 February 26. The cartoon shows Riis, front row second from left, as one of Theodore Roosevelt’s inner circle.

Riis’s Danishness and circumstances doubtless played a part in his evolution into the fearless reformer he became. His writing and lecturing was not that different from his father’s profession. However, it was ultimately his very individual, relentless energy that propelled him forward even after his beloved Elizabeth died in 1905. As Mary, his second wife and widow, said to one of Riis’s grandchildren: “Why have I never married again? Because I never met anyone as alive as your grandfather. Lots of men wanted to marry me, but they were most of them stuffed shirts.” The vitality and tenacity of this Danish American holds our attention a century after his death.

The Library of Congress exhibit Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives’ runs through September 5 in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The exhibition has also been on view at the Museum of the City of New York, and will be on view in Denmark at Gammelstrand, Copenhagen, October – December 2016, and at the Kunstmuseum Ribe, January – May 2017.


  1. Once again I thank you for providing such interesting commentaries. The Library of Congress is my favorite site. Such enjoyable abstracts to relax and read.
    Like this one today on Jacob Riis (I am half Danish so perhaps I am biased today). I also forward many of your site entries.

    Thank you for your efforts.

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