STANFORD HISTORY EDUCATION GROUP sheg.stanford.edu
Lecture Notes: Jacob Riis
Immigration & Urbanization (1880-1920)
Immigration to the United States changed significantly in the late 19
century. Until the
1880s, most immigrants to the United States came from Northern and Western Europe
and were Protestant Christians. This changed in the early 1880s, with large numbers of
Catholic and Jewish immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. New
immigrants were also more likely to settle in the cities than earlier generations of
immigrants, who tended to settle in more rural areas.
Not only were new immigrants settling in urban areas, many Americans were also
moving from the country to cities in search of economic opportunities. The large
numbers of new arrivals caused American cities to grow rapidly in the late 19
and high demand for housing meant that there were few good options for new arrivals.
Many poor immigrants settled in tenements, which were small apartments that often had
only one room. Life in the tenements was different from city to city (and from building to
building), but they were often dirty and crowded. The tenements of New York City were
known for their especially bad conditions. Single rooms often housed multiple families
and did not have private bathrooms. Many tenements also lacked running water and
electricity, and some did not have windows for ventilation or light. These conditions had
serious consequences for residents. Tenement dwellers in New York suffered from
much higher rates of infectious diseases, infant mortality, and crime than those living in
wealthier parts of the city.
Jacob Riis came to the United States from Denmark in 1870, when he was 20 years old.
He arrived in New York City nearly penniless and worked a variety of jobs before
entering the newspaper business. In 1877, Riis took a job as a police reporter for the
New York Tribune. As part of his job, he would follow the police into some of New York
City’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, which showed him what life was like
in the tenements. His experiences convinced him that something needed to be done to
improve the living conditions of the poor, and he supported efforts to change the city’s
housing laws and policies.
Riis & Flash Photography
In 1887, Riis learned that German inventors had created a new type of “flashlight
powder,” which could be used to photograph dark spaces. The flash powder was ignited
with a spark, sending a cloud of fire and sparks into the air that would light a space long
enough to take a picture. Riis decided to use this invention to photograph the dark
interiors of the tenements and the alleyways that surrounded them. Over the next
decade, Riis took hundreds of photographs of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
Some of Riis’s photographs were posed, with the participants sitting for portraits. Others
were candid, with his subjects unaware that they were being photographed. Riis would