It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when a large number of Americans lived in conditions no better than those in third-world countries. Prior to the 20th century, people lived in abject poverty, out of sight and out of mind of the middle class and affluent.
Photojournalist Jacob Riis’s 1890 book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York is an expose of tenement living, child labor and sweatshops. Just like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle nearly two decades later, the book helped expose Americans to corrupt practices and sparked change.
Inspiration for Good
Riis was a Dutch immigrant. He began his career as a police reporter. During this time, he became convinced that the only way to help people, most fellow immigrants, out of their squalid conditions was to educate the richer classes.
Armed with a camera with a powder flash, Riis documented life in tenements. He also made sketches. His work was published in an 1889 article in Scribner’s Magazine. The article was a success, so he expanded his work into a book.
The Other Half
In the late 19th century, New York City was the most densely populated area on the globe. Tenements filled lower Manhattan. The rooms in tenements were 10 square foot; the buildings were 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, and five to seven stories tall, but sometimes other tenements, rear houses, were built behind existing buildings.
Entire families lived in these rooms. In many cases, they had no windows, and there were no indoor toilets or bathing facilities. The law said there needed to be one outhouse per 20 people.
Disease was rampant and infant mortality was higher than the rest of the population.
“Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail-what do they mean? They mean that the soiled bow of white you saw on the door downstairs will have another story to tell – Oh! a sadly familiar story – before the day is at an end. The child is dying with measles. With half a chance it might have lived; but it had none. The dark bedroom killed it….,” Riis said in How the Other Half Lives.
The deplorable conditions were the result of greedy landlords who did no maintenance on their buildings and were only interested in collecting rent. For many families, rent was half of their salaries.
“Riis organized his most famous book, which was a best-seller and launched his career as a reformer — How the Other Half Lives — as a kind of a slum tour, going neighborhood by neighborhood, describing ethnic group by ethnic group,” Bonnie Yochelson, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, told NPR. “That was a pre-established literary genre, which he was borrowing. It had a lot of entertainment value. ‘Come see the colorful Italians and the mystifying Chinese.’”
Entertainment value or not, How the Other Half Lives opened people’s eyes, though slowly.
There were very few laws in effect. One, established in 1867, did lay out construction regulations, but was rarely enforced.
Riis proposed the tenements could be fixed. He asserted that humans have the right to running water, to windows in their bedrooms, to heat, ventilation and to live in safe buildings.
By 1900, though, two-thirds of New York’s population of 3 million lived in 80,000 tenements.
Finally, in 1901, the city took action. It passed a law, that it enforced. The new regulation outlawed the building of new tenements and stipulated that existing tenements be improved to allow access to light and sanitation and to add fire escapes. Many tenements were torn down and replaced with apartment buildings.
If tenement life is of interest, you can visit a real tenement in New York that has been turned into a museum, allowing visitors to experience how the other half lived.
Riis was featured in the History series America: The Story of Us.
What can be done to fight poverty today? Leave a comment below.
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