Jacob A. Riis

Submitted by Joe Colletti, PhD

Main location of work: U.S.A.

Known for:

  • Exposing the horrible living conditions of tenement housing
  • Influencing the adoption of legal codes that require housing to meet health and safety standards
Jacob A. Riis

Issues Impacted



Health Care


Methods Used



Public Speaking

Locations Influenced

New York City

United States



Videos about Jacob A. Riis as Social Reformer

What Made Jacob Riis So Effective as a Reformer?

An eighteen-page article with engravings of 19 photographs by Jacob Riis appeared in the 1889 Christmas edition of Scribner’s Magazine. The photographs and the article exposed the shocking squalor and crime of tenement housing of the late 19th-century Lower East Side of Manhattan. A year later, he expanded the article into his renowned book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York published by Scribner’s Books which further exposed the wretched conditions in which hundreds of thousands of renters lived and thousands died, including hundreds of infant children who were left in front of churches and hospitals for burial.

Because of Riis’ leadership, health and sanitation laws were passed and enforced as philanthropic organizations and special commissions investigated the abuses revealed by his photographs. Housing codes were adopted that required fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water. Existing housing was upgraded or razed depending on current conditions. New housing had to meet modern improvement standards required by law. By the time he died in 1914, Riis was known as the “Emancipator of the Slums.”

A Brief Overview of Jacob A. Riis' Life and Work

Photo by Jacob A. Riis of Children Sleeping on Mulberry StreetJacob A. Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) threw himself into exposing the horrible living and working conditions of poor immigrants because of his own horrendous experiences as a poor immigrant from Denmark, which he details in his autobiography entitled The Making of an American. For years, he lived in one substandard house or tenement after another and took one temporary job after another. He was robbed, beaten, and homeless, and he was also sick constantly during this period of his life before he entered into the profession of journalism, the means by which he escaped such a miserable life.

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York and other books written by Riis opened the eyes not only of the other half that lived in New York City, but the eyes of the nation. Other writings included The Children of the Poor (1892); Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City (1896); A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York (1900); and Children of the Tenements (1903).

The eyes of soon to-be U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt were opened while serving as New York Police Commissioner as the result of the forays he took with Riis into the shameful neighborhoods where poor immigrants lived and worked. As Governor, Roosevelt turned his eyes upon those who perpetuated such conditions and supported the fight to enact many reforms led by Riis.

During his life as a photographer, writer, and publisher, Riis was not afraid to express his convictions and anger, which paved his way to become a reformer. His autobiography is filled with expressions and experiences of his Christian faith. There is one notable incident that is filled with such expressions and experiences that Riis pinpointed as a turning-point in his life. The incident is meticulously described by Tony Carnes who is Editor and Publisher of “A Journey through NYC religions” as “A recovery of the story of Jacob Riis’ faith” (see http://www.nycreligion.info/postsecular-nyc-jacob-riis).

More about Jacob A. Riis

Social Welfare History Project: Jacob Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) – Journalist, Photographer, Social Reformer

Smithsonian.com: Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America: How innovations in photography helped this 19th century journalist improve life for many of his fellow immigrants