Riis, Jacob

Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a Danish immigrant, arrived in the United States in 1870 when he was twenty-one years old. He had no specific plan when he reached New York City. Instead, he was willing to work any job he stumbled upon. Nevertheless, work was very difficult to obtain at that time and Riis fell into poverty. Eventually, he became a newspaper reporter for the New York Tribune (1877-1888) and the Evening Sun (1888-1899). Riis also authored many articles for publications, such as The Outlook and The Christian Union, and more than a dozen books. Most of these works focused on remedying the deplorable social conditions of the poor in New York City.

One of his books, How the Other Half Lives (1890), exposed the horrors of tenement life. It caught the attention of Civil Service Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who viewed it as a call to action. Immediately after finishing this book, Roosevelt marched into Riis’s office to tender his assistance. In 1895, when Roosevelt was New York Police Commissioner and Riis was employed as a police reporter at the Mulberry Street station, the two often worked together. They ventured out on urban expeditions together to witness first-hand the calamitous conditions affecting the poor. Through their investigations, they hoped to bring about better living situations as well as to eliminate corruption within the police department that added to the burden of destitute New Yorkers. Riis was active in bringing about anti-child labor and tenement reform laws.

After Roosevelt resigned as Police Commissioner, he and Riis remained close. United by their passion for reform, the pair’s unlikely friendship surpassed purely political matters. Riis authored an admiring biography of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 and supported Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party presidential bid. Their letters attest to the closeness that continued until Riis’s death in 1914.

Riis married Elisabeth Nielsen in 1876 and the couple had three children. Two years after Elisabeth’s death, Riis wed Mary Phillips. Until her death in 1967, Mary Phillips Riis served as president of the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House, established by Riis in 1888. Today, Jacob Riis is remembered chiefly for his life’s crusade of bringing attention to the plight of the poor through his writings, lectures, and photographs.