How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York in the 1880s

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Scribner’s, November 1890. Harvard University Press: “Jacob Riis’s pioneering work of photojournalism takes its title from Rabelais’s Pantagruel: ‘One half of the world knoweth not how the other half liveth; considering that no one has yet written of that Country.’ An anatomy of New York City’s slums in the 1880s, it vividly brought home to its first readers through the powerful combination of text and images the squalid living conditions of ‘the other half,’ who might well have inhabited another country. The book pricked the conscience of its readers and raised the tenement into a symbol of intransigent social difference. As Alan Trachtenberg makes clear in his introduction, it is a book that still speaks powerfully to us today of social injustice.”

Excerpts from the Introduction:

Long ago [16th century] it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance….

To-day [1890] three-fourths of [the people in New York City] live in the tenements, and the nineteenth century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them…. We know now that there is no way out [to the suburbs]; that the ‘system’ that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization. Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain….

The remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscience. Neither legislation nor charity can cover the ground. The greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it, as far as it can now be undone. Homes must be built for the working masses by those who employ their labor….

Additional resources:

How the Other Half Lives on LibriVox: “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was a pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting the 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 class.”

Janet B. Pascal, Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer, Chapter 7, pp. 71-87, “Burrowing Deep in the Slums.” Oxford University Press, 2 December 2005.

[During lectures Riis gave] audience members cried, talked to the photographs, and even sometimes fainted. They were genuinely moved, and receptive to his pleas for action. He was not above appealing to fear either. He reminded his audience of the huge numbers of desperate people whose sense of right and wrong was being destroyed by the conditions in which they lived and who might someday rise against the society that oppressed them. We needed to find solutions, Riis asserted, not only for moral reasons but for self protection.

[How the Other Half Lives] was immediately successful. It was certainly not the first to discuss the problems of urban poverty and squalor, but with its vivid photographs and colorful, conversational writing it spoke directly to people’s hearts as no other book had. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune epitomized the response the book aroused, claiming that no one could ‘read it without an instant and unappeasable desire to do something.’ It helped arouse the sympathy of well-meaning citizens and reformers throughout the country, and firmly established Riis in the position he would occupy for the rest of his life as spokesman and activist for the urban poor.

Portfolio: (

Riis greatly admired the reporting of Charles Dickens, who wrote about London’s poor, and much of Riis’ writing style reflects Dickens’ first-person encounters with the ‘other half.’ Riis, however, frequently wrote with a sense of righteousness that is lacking in his British counterpart. To the modern reader, Riis’ diatribes sometimes come across as pedantic. His writing also reflects many of the prejudices of the time; he spends entire chapters characterizing…the Jews, Italians, and Irish that made up the tenement district. It is worth bearing in mind here that Riis was writing for a specific audience [upper and middle-class people], and was therefore playing upon the biases of that audience.