Document A
Riis took this photograph in a dark, windowless tenement in 1890. The men and women
in the photograph did not know they were going be photographed and were surprised
when he discharged a bright flash to take the photo. In his notes, Riis reported that the
13-foot room, “slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of
alcove, the rest on the floor.”
Title: Five cents a spot - unauthorized immigration lodgings in a Bayard Street
Location: New York City
Date: 1890
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Document B
This photograph was taken in Mulberry Bend, one of the most dangerous areas of the
notorious Five Points neighborhood in New York City. The image shows a man sitting in
front of a dilapidated shack. Riis reported that he paid the man 10 cents to sit for the
Title: Tramp in Mulberry Street Yard
Location: New York City
Date: 1887-1888
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Document C
This image shows an Italian immigrant and her baby sitting in their windowless one-
room tenement. The room contains all their possessions, including a rolled-up mattress
and a pallet (to her right) that likely served as their bed.
Title: Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street
Location: New York City
Date: 1888-1889
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Document D
This passage is from Riis’s influential book, How the Other Half Lives. The
section is excerpted from a chapter that discusses Italian immigrants and
their living conditions.
The Italian comes in at the bottom, and in the generation that came over
the sea he stays there. In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who
“makes less trouble” than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving
German, that is to say: is content to live in a pig-sty and submits to robbery
at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur. . . .
Ordinarily he is easily enough governed by authority—always excepting
Sunday, when he settles down to a game of cards and lets loose all his bad
passions. Like the Chinese, the Italian is a born gambler. His soul is in the
game from the moment the cards are on the table, and very frequently his
knife is in it too before the game is ended.
Source: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.
Guiding Questions
1. What does each photograph suggest about what life was like in the tenements of
New York City in the late 19
Document A
Document B
Document C
2. What other evidence might you want to see if you wanted to determine whether
these photographs were an accurate representation of life in the tenements?
3. When evaluating whether a historical photograph is useful as evidence,
historians consider various questions, including:
When and where was the photograph taken?
Who took the photograph? What was their perspective on the events or
people being photographed, and how might that have influenced what
they chose to shoot?
Why was the photograph taken? Might the photographer have wanted to
portray a scene in a particular way?
Under what circumstances was the photograph taken? How might these
circumstances have limited or enabled what the photographer captured?
What technology did the photographer use, and how might that have
influenced the image created?
Considering the questions above, why might Riis’s photographs be useful
evidence about life in New York’s tenements?
Considering the questions above, what about the photographs might cause you
to question whether they are useful evidence about life in New York’s
4. Riis used the image in Document B in his popular slideshow presentation. In his
lecture notes, Riis wrote, “On one of my visits to ‘the Bend’ I came across this
fellow sitting . . . and he struck me as being such a typical tramp that I asked him
to sit still for a minute and I would give him ten cents. That was probably the first
and only ten cents that man had earned by honest labor in the course of his life
and that was by sitting down at which he was an undoubted expert.”
What was Riis’s attitude toward the man in the picture?
Does this affect whether Document B is strong evidence of life in the tenements?
Why or why not?
5. What does Document D reveal about Riis’s attitudes towards Italian immigrants?
Does this passage affect whether Riis’s photographs are strong evidence of life
in the tenements? Why or why not?
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
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
sometimes enter tenements and surprise those inside with a blinding flash, running
away before they knew what had happened.
The photograph in this slide shows a family of Eastern European immigrants in their
one-room tenement. The room served as both their home and work place. Riis reported
that members of this family worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week making cigars in
the room, and that the cramped space reeked of toxic fumes.
Riis & Advocacy for the Poor
Riis hoped to use his photographs to convince others to support housing reform. In
1888, he created a slideshow lecture that included about one hundred images on glass
slides. He showed the images with a “magic lantern,” an early projector. Riis narrated
the slides as he showed them, and he was an excellent story teller. His presentation
received rave reviews, and his lecture was soon in high demand. In the coming years,
Riis would travel across the country delivering the lecture.
Riis chose powerful images for his slideshow. His pictures would have been troubling to
his middle-class audiences, few of whom had seen urban poverty up close. The
photograph on this slide is titled “Bandit’s Roost.” It shows an alley between tenement
buildings in Mulberry Bend, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. On the left
is a young mother with her children. On the right is a group of “toughs” staring at the
How the Other Half Lives.
In 1889, an editor from a well-known magazine called Scribner’s attended Riis’s lecture
and offered him $150 to write an article for his magazine. The article eventually led to a
book deal in 1890 for How the Other Half Lives. In this influential book, Riis described
the conditions in the tenements and the lifestyles of poor immigrants who lived in New
York’s poorest slums. Riis also argued that the problems of the poor were caused by
bad housing conditions and not hereditary. Riis believed that urban poverty could be
fixed with better housing conditions and good government policies.
How the Other Half Lives was widely read and influenced the Progressive Era
movement for more effective urban government and better housing for the poor. Riis’s
groundbreaking work also served as an inspiration for generations of progressive
photographers and journalists who have promoted change and advocated for the poor.
Central Historical Question
Today we are going to analyze four photographs by Jacob Riis that portray poor
immigrants living in New York City from 1887-1892 and answer the question: What were
conditions like in New York City tenements in the late 19