Jacob August Riis (1849-1914) was a journalist, author, social reformer, and photographer. He was born in Denmark and emigrated to the United States in 1870. While working as a reporter for the New York Tribune, he began his crusade to improve urban life. His efforts to ameliorate conditions in the slums included campaigns for effective child labor laws and building codes. Riis worked at the Tribune until 1888 when he became a police reporter at the Evening Sun. After his retirement in 1899, he continued to write books and articles and lectured extensively until his death in 1914.The Jacob Riis papers consist of correspondence, diaries, lecture notes, manuscripts, photographs, and printed matter. Correspondence includes family letters of Riis, his second wife and her family; and business letters regarding Riis's work, publications, lecture tours, and farm matters. Diaries cover Riis's early years in the U.S. as well as his later business and personal affairs. Lecture notes pertain to speeches on housing, organized charity, and related topics. Holograph manuscripts represent major works. Photographs are of Riis, his family, and scenes of Denmark. Also included are news clippings, published manuscripts, letters and notebooks.
Biographical/historical: Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), journalist, author, social reformer, and photographer was born in Ribe, Denmark, and came to the United States in 1870. As a recent immigrant, Riis worked at a variety of jobs which took him through many states and acquainted him with the life that many immigrants faced as itinerant laborers. In 1876 Riis married Elisabeth Nielsen, also of Ribe.
It was not until 1877 that Riis, hired by the New York Tribune as a reporter assigned to cover Police Headquarters, found the work that was to become his career. Stationed at Mulberry Street in the center of the New York City’s tenement district, Riis was appalled by the abject living conditions which he saw and was inspired to begin his life-long work as a reformer and crusader for the organized improvement of urban life. In articles, book, photographs, and lectures Riis depicted the suffering of the poor in the city’s ghettos. His efforts to ameliorate slum conditions included campaigns for effective child labor laws and building codes. Two of Riis’s major projects were the building of Mulberry Bend Park and the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House (1888). Riis was also responsible for introducing the use of Christmas stamps to raise money for tuberculosis victims. Throughout his life he remained convinced of the effectiveness of organized charity and legislation in curing social ills.
Riis worked at the Tribune until 1888 and continued his journalistic career at the Evening Sun (1888-1899) as a police reporter. After his retirement, Riis continued to write and to pursue an active schedule of lectures and speaking engagements. In 1912 he came to the aid of his longtime friend Theodore Roosevelt, and four hectic weeks that year were spent speaking in support of Roosevelt’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In 1911, Riis and his second wife, Mary Phillips, bought a farm near Barre, Massachusetts. Riis died there in 1914.
In addition to numerous newspaper and magazine articles, Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives (1890), The Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Making of an American (1901), The Battle With the Slum (1902), Children of the Tenements (1903), Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen (1904), Is There a Santa Claus? (1904), and The Old Town (1909).
After Jacob Riis’s death, Mary Riis continued to work on the farm, later working on Wall Street and teaching a course on inventing at Columbia University. She served as president and honorary chairman of Riis House and was involved in activities there until her death in 1967.
Content: The Jacob Riis papers consist of correspondence, diaries, lecture notes, holograph manuscripts, clippings, miscellaneous printed materials, and photographs. They span the years 1871-1916 and include Riis’s own papers as well as correspondence of the Phillips family, much of it addressed to Mary Phillips, Riis’s second wife. The correspondence includes family letters, business letters regarding Riis’s work, publications and lecture tours and letters relating to farm matters.
Most of the early letters to Riis are in Danish, and many are written from his native Ribe. Letters Riis received in 1905 relate for the most part to the illness and subsequent death of his first wife, Elisabeth Nielson. Elisabeth had become well known to the American public after the publication of The Making of an American (1901), in which she played an important role. The letters and notes of sympathy include many from people who did not know Riis personally, as well as those from prominent persons, including several cablegrams from Theodore Roosevelt. Additional correspondence received in 2011 consists of business and personal letters written and received throughout his career up until his death in 1914. Much of this correspondence is with two life-long friends, Dr. Roger S. Tracy and Lillian Wald, and often includes analysis of local and national politics. Letters relating to the publication of The Making of an American are also present.
Phillips family letters contain correspondence between Mary and her parents (Mr. and Mrs. R.F. Phillips), and sister, Carol, from her school days through the period of her marriage to Jacob Riis. These letters, which date from 1892 to 1916, generally discuss children, fashion, family relationships, schooling, and social activities.
Riis’s pocket diaries for the years 1871 through 1875 were written almost exclusively in Danish and document his early years in the United States and his search for employment. One English entry in August of 1875 records Riis’s purchase of the South Brooklyn News for six hundred dollars. Six memorandum books kept by Riis from 1882 to1902 include research notes, lecture schedules, business and personal expenses, and travel notes from a trip to England in 1893. Lecture notes for the years 1896 to 1911 are included for speeches on housing, organized charity, and for the opening of Seward Park in 1903.
The five holograph manuscripts in the collection represent some of Riis’s major works: How the Other Half Lives, The Children of the Poor, The Making of an American, Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen, and The Old Town.
Miscellaneous papers include newspaper clippings, published articles by Riis, pamphlets, brochures, notebooks, and several Danish manuscripts. Subjects addressed in these materials include day care, schools, reformatories, asylums, good government clubs, and Christmas seals. A typescript version of the epilogue for a 1970 edition of The Making of an American is also present. Written by J. Riis Owre (Jacob Riis’s grandson), it is an interesting and warmly written biographical sketch which quotes extensively from Riis’s letters in the Library of Congress.
Photographs include scenes of Denmark, family pictures, individual portraits, and one portrait of Jacob Riis. The photographs are, for the most part, unidentified and only one (of his son Roger William Riis) is attributed to Riis.