How the Other Half Lives

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This article is about the work of photojournalism. For the song, see Thoroughly Modern Millie (musical).
Bandit's Roost by Jacob Riis, New York, 1888

How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future "muckraking" journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes.

History and contents[edit]

In the 1890s many people in upper- and middle-class society were unaware of the dangerous conditions in the slums among poor immigrants. Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who himself could not originally find much work, hoped to expose the squalor of the 19th-century Lower East Side of Manhattan. After a successful career as a police reporter,[1] he published a photojournal documenting these conditions using graphic descriptions, sketches, photographs, and statistics. Riis blamed the apathy of the moneyed class for the condition of the New York slums, and assumed that as people were made more aware of these conditions they would be motivated to help eradicate them.

In 1889 Riis wrote a magazine article exposing some of the harsh conditions of New York slums which was published with a number of engravings of his photographs in Scribner's Magazine.[2] Due to its disturbing pictures and articles, the city's rich newspaper owners had refused to publish it.[citation needed] Yet soon the article proved to be popular and Riis spent the better part of a year expanding it into the book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, published by Scribner's Books in 1890.[2] The book was also successful. Soon after its publication, The New York Times lauded its content, calling it a “powerful book”.[3]

The title of the book is a reference to a sentence by French writer François Rabelais, who famously wrote in Pantagruel: "one half of the world does not know how the other half lives" ("la moytié du monde ne sait comment l'autre vit").[4]

In How the Other Half Lives Riis describes the system of tenement housing that had failed, as he claims, due to 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.[5] Chapter by chapter he uses his words and photographs to expose the conditions inhabited by the poor in a manner that “spoke directly to people's hearts”.[2]

He ends How the Other Half Lives with a plan of how to fix the problem. He asserts that the plan is achievable and that the upper classes will not only profit financially from such ventures, but have a moral obligation to tend to them as well.[6]

Because of the recent invention of flash photography, Riis was able to photograph the unlit areas of tenements and expose wretched working and living conditions. The harsh white light from magnesium flash powder often caused a look of shock on the faces of those photographed and was accepted as an indication of candid and objective photography.

How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York explained not only the living conditions in New York slums, but also the sweatshops in some tenements which paid workers only a few cents a 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).

The effect was the tearing down of New York's worst tenements, sweatshops, and the reformation of the city's schools. The book led to a decade of improvements in Lower East Side conditions, with sewers, garbage collection, and indoor plumbing all following soon after, thanks to public reaction.


  1. ^ “Jacob A. Riis Tells of His Early Trials,” The New York Times, 29 Oct. 1906.
  2. ^ a b c Pascal, Janet B., Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer, pp. 84-87. Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ “Matters We Ought to Know: How the Other Half Lives”, The New York Times, 4 January 1891.
  4. ^ Speake, Jennifer (2008). A Dictionary of Proverbs, p. 325. Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (Kessinger Publishing, 2004), pp. 3–5.
  6. ^ Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (Kessinger Publishing, 2004), pp. 152–153.

External links[edit]