Jacob Riis’s Copy of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ Acquired

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Riis-Donation-3The New-York Historical Society has acquired a first edition of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.

The newly acquired volume is heavily annotated by the author with pages scrawled with moral indignation towards slumlords, asides about tenement residents, and copyedits.

The book is an often cited example of early photojournalism in which Riis used relatively new flash photography techniques to make photos inside the homes of the city’s poor, thereby documenting the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the late 19th century. By exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes, it served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism.

Jacob Riis, Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street, c 1889Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) immigrated to the United States in 1870 and lived in poverty for several years before becoming a newspaper police reporter on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the 1880s, he began his effective crusade to improve immigrants’ living conditions through tenement house law reform and programs for children.

Riis turned to photography in 1887 as a powerful tool to persuade people that the slum horrors were real. At first, he relied on Richard H. Lawrence and other amateur camera club members to obtain images. Later, he began taking his own photographs. In 1890, Riis published How the Other Half Lives, which documented the systemic failure of tenement housing alongside greed and neglect from the wealthy. The book featured 35 illustrations, including 17 halftone reproductions of Riis’s photographs.

It was donated by Ted Gup, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on his purchase of the volume and the continuing resonance of a work that attacked the conscience of America’s Gilded Age, invigorating generations of investigative journalists and social reformers.

“I cannot imagine a more appropriate home for this Jacob Riis volume than the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, Vice President and Director of the Klingenstein Library. “Our collection holds over 200 original prints of his photographs, all first editions of his books, and still larger holdings of the social service agencies and organizations that were ignited by his work. We are grateful to Mr. Gup for donating this volume to New-York Historical to mark the centennial of Riis’s death.”

Prior to being purchased by Ted Gup from a Washington, D.C. bookseller, the book was passed down through several generations of Riis’s descendants, most recently his great-granddaughter, Gretchen Moore Cooke.

Photos: Above, Riis’s annotated copy of How The Other Half Lives (Courtesy the New-York Historical Society); and below, Jacob Riis’s, Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street, c. 1889.

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