Jacob Riis: Biography, Facts & Books

Instructor: Natarielle Powell
How do you go from living in a slum to being a reporter, photojournalist, and author whom President Theodore Roosevelt called the best American he ever knew? Read on to learn how Jacob Riis did it.

Early Life

Can you imagine having 13 brothers and sisters? Well, Jacob August Riis did. He was the third child out of 14. His father, Niels, was an editor of a local newspaper, and he was also a teacher. His mom, Carolina, was what we would call today a stay-at-home mom.

Jacob Riis was born on May 3, 1849, in Denmark. His family grew over the years but decreased by one when Jacob was 11 years old. During this year, Jacob's brother drowned. This haunted Jacob for a great deal of his life. Can you imagine how his mom felt after losing a child? She would sometimes sit and stare at the empty chair that his brother used to sit in at the dinner table.

Concern for the Less Fortunate

Even as a young boy, Jacob was concerned about those living in poverty. When he was 12 years old, he gave all of his Christmas money to a needy family in his hometown. How many 12-year-olds do you know that would do that? My guess is not many.

Coming to America

At age 16, Riis fell in love with a young lady named Elisabeth Gortz, but the feeling was not mutual. As a result of being heartbroken, Riis left Denmark and traveled to Copenhagen looking for work. He held different jobs, but did not find his true passion until he came to America in 1870.

During this time, many foreigners were moving to the United States in search of work and a better life. Many came to urban areas like New York City, and so did Jacob Riis. He saw the poverty first hand, living in a police-run poorhouse.

Have you ever had a dog as a family pet growing up? Jacob Riis had a dog as his companion until the police beat the dog to death. Fortunately, Riis did not strike the officers, but because of what they did to his dog and the horrible conditions in the poorhouse, he made a vow to have it, and others like it, closed.

She said YES!

In 1873, Riis became a police reporter in New York City. Just a year later, when he was 25 years old, Jacob wrote to Elisabeth and proposed again. This time, she said yes! Elisabeth soon moved to New York City with Jacob to begin their married life together.

In 1905, Elisabeth became ill and died that same year. Two years later, Riis married Mary Phillips and moved to Massachusetts. Jacob had children with Mary, but none with Elisabeth.

What is Photojournalism?

Are you familiar with Instagram? It is a social media outlet centered around sharing pictures and very short videos of the events and occurrences in a person's life. Usually a few words are added to give a brief bit of information about the picture. This is a lot like photojournalism, a way of presenting news material with images that tell a story.

After experiencing the slums of New York City, Riis decided to become a photojournalist to show what life was really like for the urban poor. He used flash powder in his photos to give them a more real look. This was in the late 1880s. He gave lectures about the horrible conditions of the tenement houses (a poorly built and maintained multi-family apartment) and used the pictures to emphasize his points.

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