One of the most influential journalists and social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jacob A. Riis emigrated to New York City from Denmark in 1870 at the age of 21.
After working several menial jobs, Riis became a police reporter in 1877 for the New York Tribune, before joining the New York Evening Sun in 1888. While working as a police reporter Riis often wrote stories of the New York City slums, and learned about the immigrant neighborhoods that would later become the basis of his calls for social reform. Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night.
In 1890, Riis published his groundbreaking work, “How the Other Half Lives.” The book used revealing photojournalism and detailed analysis of the housing problems afflicting poor immigrants to argue in favor of reforming New York’s tenements.
This book launched Riis on a career of social reform. He spent the rest of his life raising awareness about the grim realities facing poor immigrants inside New York City’s slums. Riis’s work brought him to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president of the New York Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897. Roosevelt and Riis soon became friends, and Roosevelt ofen went with Riis on some of his late night adventures into the New York slums to investigate living conditions.
Riis believed that individuals, regardless of their economic status, should be given a chance to improve their lives. Given that chance, he believed many could rise out of poverty and into the ranks of the middle class.
Reformers like Riis believed that poverty was the result of social and economic conditions, not moral weakness, and that reform efforts could help the poor.
Strongly influenced by the work of settlement house pioneers in New York, Riis collaborated with the King’s Daughters, an organization of Episcopalian church women, to establish the King’s Daughters Settlement House in 1890. Originally housed on 48 Henry Street in the Lower East Side, the settlement house offered sewing classes, mothers clubs, health care, summer camp and a penny provident bank. In 1901, the organization was renamed the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House (Riis Settlement) in honor of its founder and broadened the scope of activities to include athletics, citizenship classes, and drama.
Riis wrote more than a dozen books, including “Children of the Poor” and “Out of Mulberrry Street.” His autobiography, “The Making of an American,” was published in 1901.