Journalist Jacob Riis Exposed Inequality, and Galvanized the Progressive Movement


Jacob Riis was the living definition of a muckraker who devoted his life to exposing the harsh living conditions of the New York tenements.

Jacob August Riis was born on May 3, 1849 in Ribe, Denmark. He immigrated to the United States in 1870 with nothing but the clothes on his body, a locket and $40. After a number of menial jobs, he became a small time police reporter, but quickly became interested by the idea of photography. He picked up his first camera and fell in love. Riis started to learn more and more about the world of photography, and thanks to his natural talent, he thrived.

Becoming a novice photographer, he combined his reporting past and his photography future to become a photojournalist. Riis started off in New York and soon wrote a book called: How The Other Half Lives. The book quickly took off and people all over the country were reading it. The middle class, the employed, the unemployed, the skilled, the unskilled, everyone who could get their hands on it, read it.

How The Other Half Lives contained many photos of the residents of the New York tenements and little snippets of what they had to say about their lives. In the book, Riis also made a strong statement about the dangers of living in the tenements.

Jacob Riis’ social and economic impact was groundbreaking.Jacob Riis’ work, and help from the Progressives, helped reform the way American cities were run. When his book was published it influenced the police commissioner in New York to lobby for new laws that protected the rights of tenants and workers in New York. That police commissioner, named Theodor Roosevelt, would become a leader in the new progressive movement, and would eventually be elected president of the United States.

[Sources: Biography.com; McClure's Magazine; New York Times]

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