About photobooks – old and new.
Author: Jacob Riis
Title: How the Other Half Lives – Studies among the Tenements of New York
Published in 1890 by Charles Scriber’s Sons, New York (First edition, first printing)
8vo, Hardcover with illustrated cloth, 304 pp with 23 b&w photographs.
Jacob Riis was a social reformer who used photography for social documentation and awareness. His activism focused on issues such as child labour, poverty, and insalubrious living conditions. The main goal was to change living conditions of the poorest by documenting and exposing them to wealthier social classes, who in general were unaware of the dangerous living conditions. An important part of his work is centered in New York City, especially in the Lower East Side slums among poor immigrants, where his photographic social documentation gained more expression.
“How the Other Half Lives – Studies among the Tenements of New York” is a direct result of his activism in New York City. The title of the book is a reference to a sentence by the French writer François Rabelais, who wrote in Pantagruel: “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives” (“la moitié du monde ne sait comment l’autre vit”). The book is an expanded version of an original eighteen-page article titled “How the Other Half Lives”, which appeared in the Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner’s Magazine.
The purpose of the article and the book itself was to document the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. Riis describes the system of tenement housing that had failed, as he claims, because of greed and neglect from wealthier people. He claims a correlation between the high crime rate, drunkenness, and reckless behaviour of the poor and their lack of a proper home. The book also documents the sweatshops in some tenements, which paid workers only a few cents per day. The book explains the plight of working children; they would work in factories and at other jobs. Some children became garment workers and newsies (newsboys).
Although some of his points are based on his own understanding than on scientific research, the introduction of photography helped proving the squalid conditions and increasing sympathy for the individuals living in these slums. Riis finally convinced the average reader of newspapers that the poor were not so by choice; that the dangerous and unhygienic conditions in which they lived were imposed by society, rather than the result of loose moral standards; that the slums were something that needed to be fixed.
This work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, both immediately after publication as well as making a lasting impact in today’s society. In 1894, the Tenement House Committee was established. In 1895, they published the New York Tenement House Act, which outlawed rear tenements and also was the first official document to supplement a written description of tenement housing with photographs. In addition to this legislature, more reform was brought about by the New York Tenement House Act of 1901, which changed the minimum requirements of tenement housing to include reforms in the amount of light received by living quarters, increased fire safety regulations, more ventilation, restrictions on building height, and increased room space.