19th Century

The Underclass of 19th-Century New York City: The Work of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914)

Stephen Basdeo examines the work of nineteenth-century American social reformer, Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914).

Amongst British nineteenth-century scholars, Henry Mayhew is perhaps the best known of all social investigators, along with perhaps G. W. M. Reynolds. His London Labour and the London Poor (1851) documented the lives and living conditions of a variety of working-class people. A little later in the century, on the other side of the pond, however, was an equally interesting figure, Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) who published a work similar to Mayhew’s but with an emphasis on New York entitled How the Other Half LivesStudies Among the Tenements of New York (1890).

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Jacob A. Riis (c) Wikimedia Commons

Conditions for the poor in late-nineteenth-century New York City were comparable to those faced by paupers in Victorian London. Many of the poor, adults as well as children, in New York worked as casual labourers, families herded into a single room at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Riis himself had experienced some of this poverty – he was born in Denmark in 1849, but had emigrated to the States in 1870 to seek employment as a journalist. He arrived in the States just prior to ‘The Long Depression’ (1873-1879) and experienced bouts of unemployment, hunger, and homelessness himself. Eventually he got a job with The New York Tribune as a Police Reporter and became acquainted with the thousands of people who passed through the police courts. Furthermore, he often accompanied policemen on their rounds through the slum districts of the Lower East Side, and he decided that he had to alert the public to the plight of the poor and the need for social reform.[1] Another thing he did was to photograph much of what he saw, which highlighted for readers the awful conditions that their fellow countrymen lived in.

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“Bandits’ Roost” from J A Riis’s How the Other Half Live

According to Riis, it makes sense to improve the condition of the poor from both an economic and Christian standpoint: improving the living conditions of the poor would reduce the costs of workhouses (yes, the States had them too) and prisons, among other things; and, of course, it is the duty of every Christian to help the poor.[2] There is also the fact that diseases spread easily amongst the cramped tenements of New York, and these diseases recognise no social class – cholera in the slums can and does spread to the suburbs.

But Riis is essentially one of the elites who, although he is friendly to the poor, is at times condescending towards them. Unlike Mayhew, interviews with paupers are not a prominent part of his enquiries into the condition of the poor. They are categorised according to their class, or ethnicity in some cases.  Thus the various chapters describe ‘The Sweaters of Jewtown’ (describing poor Jews), ‘The Italian in New York’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘The Color Line in New York’ (describing the condition of black people in the city). Then there is ‘The Mixed Crowd’ and ‘The Common Herd’.

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Young newspaper sellers photographed in their lodging room wash-houses

Riss’ chapters on ‘The Waifs of the City’s Slums’ and ‘Street Arabs’ is harrowing but especially interesting. These are the homeless, parentless children of New York City that must survive by their wits, making money however they can:

Newspaper row is merely their headquarters. They are to be found all over the city, these Street Arabs, where the neighbourhood offers a chance of picking up a living in the daytime and of “turning in” at night with a promise of security from surprise. In warm weather a truck in the street, a convenient outhouse, or a dug out in a hay garage at the wharf make good bunks.[3]

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An immigrant family in poor quality slum housing

Many of these boys were newspaper sellers, or ‘Newsies’ according to American slang (the story of the Newsie strike was, curiously, a very successful Disney Broadway play in 2014). Others made their money by shining shoes in the street. Yet with provision to help such homeless young boys and girls so thin, there is only one path open to them as they reach adulthood: a criminal career. Riis says

Very soon the wild life in the streets holds him fast, and thenceforward by his own effort there is no escape. Left alone to himself, he soon enough finds a place in the police books, and there would be no other answer to the second question: “what becomes of the boy?” than that given by the criminal courts every day this week.[4]

But Riis does more than simply whinge about the state of the poor in New York City. He also provides a solution. The state, along with private capital, must rebuild the tenements on a large scale. This is the crux of the matter – the Health Department, argues Riis, cannot make inroads into improving citizens’ health if the city as a whole is unprepared to remedy the housing the situation and build clean, new apartments for people in the place of the slums. From this would follow an improvement in the habits and morals of the impoverished working classes. And Riis’ work was suitably shocking to respectable inhabitants of New York to ensure that it had lasting impact. The Tenement Housing Committee was formed in 1894, and in the following year the Tenement Housing Act was passed which prohibited sub-standard building. Further improvements came in 1901 with more legislation aimed at improving the condition of paupers’ habitations, and a further result of his work was that the Federal Government began to undertake reforms to pauper dwelling places on a national scale.[5]


[1]Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives, ed. by Charles A. Madison (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1890; repr. New York: Dover, 1971), p.v.

[2]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.2.

[3]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.154.

[4]Riis, How the Other Half Lives, p.156.

[5]Keith Gandal, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (Oxford University Press, 1997), p.148.

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