Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives
Jacob Riis (1849–1914) was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. His then-novel idea of using photographs of the city’s slums to illustrate the plight of impoverished residents established Riis as forerunner of modern photojournalism. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives features photographs by Riis and his contemporaries, as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence.
New York City was the epicenter of America’s thriving economy, but spawned the worst slums on earth. The Danish-born Riis emigrated to America at the age of twenty, and after four years of living in poverty, he started a successful career as a newspaper journalist for the New York Tribune and the Evening Star. Riis worked at night as a police reporter, often seeing the less polished side of New York City, the new home to many immigrants from throughout Europe.
By taking photographs to accompany his newspaper articles, Riis first began documenting the lives of the impoverished and the places they lived and took refuge. With the development of flash powder, he was able to illuminate nighttime images of those living and working in alleyways, tenements, and sweat shops, among other squalid places in the city. His interest in writing about “how the other half lived” grew, and over his lifetime Riis wrote many books about the urban poor that included his photographs.
Feeling that more could be done, Riis gave his first lantern slide lecture (a precursor to today’s digital presentations) featuring his photographs in 1888. He captivated audiences with stories of his experiences and began to tour the country delivering lectures, often in a crusade to advocate and bring about changes for the marginalized.
Through his lectures, many books, and even his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt (former Police Commissioner of New York), Riis advanced social reform in early twentieth-century America. His efforts led to increased awareness about the city’s underbelly and improved living conditions for children and adults. Riis considered himself a writer first, and his powerful images were not appreciated fully until a large trove of his glass negatives, lantern slides, and other photographs were pulled from the attic of his former home on Long Island in the 1940s, long after his death in 1914.
Visitors to the exhibition will experience a Riis presentation—immersive life-size photographs, as well as artifacts and personal documentation.
Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives is adapted from the exhibition Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, organized by the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition was curated by Bonnie Yochelson and co-presented by the Library of Congress. It was made possible with major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Terra Foundation for American Arts, as well as support from D. Euan and Merete Baird, The Malkin Fund, Ronay and Richard L. Menschel, Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrick’s Foundation, C. Flemming and Judy Heilmann, Kan and Lotte Leschly, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the John L. Loeb Jr. Foundation. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives tours April 2018 through March 2023. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact us for current availability.
April 6–May 25, 2018
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museum
Fremont, OH booked
June 16–August 11, 2018
Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
Wichita, KS booked
September 1–January 7, 2019
Tarrant County College
Fort Worth, TX booked
January 28–March 16, 2019
Carthage, TX booked
April 6–May 25, 2019
Museum of Danish America
Elk Horn, IA booked
June 16–August 11, 2019
Wood County Historical Society
Bowling Green, OH booked
September 1–October 20, 2019
Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission partnering with Quincy Mine Hoist Association
Calumet, MI booked
November 10, 2019–January 7, 2020
Muscatine Art Center
Muscatine, IA booked
January 28–March 16, 2020
Nordic Heritage Museum
Seattle, WA booked
April 6–May 25, 2020
Kansas City, MO booked
September 1–October 20, 2020
Chippewa Valley Museum
Eau Claire, WI booked
November 10, 2020–January 7, 2021
Park City Museum
Park City, UT booked
January 28–March 16, 2021
Louisiana's Old State Capitol
Baton Rouge, LA booked
June 16–August 11, 2021
National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library
Cedar Rapids, IA booked
September 1–October 20, 2021
River Falls Public Library
River Falls, WI booked
November 10, 2021–January 7, 2022
Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History
Bryan, TX booked
January 28–March 16, 2022
April 6–May 25, 2022
East Hampton Historical Society
East Hampton, NY booked
June 16–August 11, 2022
Washakie Museum & Cultural Center
Worland, WY booked
September 1–October 20, 2022
Upcountry History Museum, Furman University
Greenville, SC booked
November 10, 2022–January 7, 2023
Dane G. Hansen Museum
Logan, KS pending
January 28–March 16, 2023
Exhibition Details & Specifications
Bonnie Yochelson, former curator of prints and photographs, The Museum of the City of New York
Organized ByThe Museum of the City of New York
The exhibition features several freestanding units focused on the thematic areas incorporating a selection of objects, artifacts, photographs, and paper ephemera; audio/video features; interactive stations; and wall mounted graphics.
On-site support is free to the opening venue for every new NEH on the Road exhibition and to first-time hosting venues on a limited basis
Expense covered by NEH on the Road. Exhibitor will coordinate with NEH on the Road's registrar for all outgoing transportation arrangements.
Approximately 1,000 square feet
Number of Crates/Total Weight
12 crates/4,127 pounds
The exhibition is fully insured by NEH on the Road at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.
Exhibition Reference Materials
Baker, Sara Josephine. Fighting for Life. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1939.
*Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Read a
Classic 2010 edition.
Riis, Jacob. The Children of the Poor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908.
*Riis, Jacob. The Making of an American. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1901.
CreateSpace 2016 edition.
Wald, Lillian. The House on Henry Street. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1925.
Boyer, Paul. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1992.
Davis, Allen F. Spearheads for Reform, The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement,
1890-1914. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Dolkart, Andrew. Biography of a Tenement House in New York City. Charlottesville, VA:
University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Jaffe, Steven H. and Jessica Lautin. Capital of Capital: Money, Banking and Power in New York
City, 1784-2012. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986.
Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University
*Yochelson, Bonnie and Daniel Czitrom. Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and
Photography in Turn-of-the-Century. New York: New Press, 2007.
Yochelson, Bonnie. Jacob Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2015.
Books for Young Readers
Brennan, Patricia Demuth. What Was Ellis Island? New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.
From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the gateway to a new life in the United States for millions of immigrants. In later years, the island was deserted, the buildings decaying. It opened to the public once again in 1990 as a museum. Learn more about America’s history through the story of one of the most popular landmarks in the country.
Glaser, Linda. Emma’s Poem. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010.
(Ages 9–12, Common Core Text Exemplar for Grades 4–5)
In 1883, Emma Lazarus, deeply moved by an influx of immigrants from eastern Europe, wrote a sonnet that gave a voice to the Statue of Liberty. Originally a gift from France to celebrate our shared national struggles for liberty, the statue, thanks to Emma’s poem, came to define us as a nation that welcomes immigrants.
*Granfield, Linda. 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Tundra Books, 2001.
Linda Granfield tells the story of four families who called 97 Orchard Street in New York City home, bringing to life conditions that were familiar to immigrants in many of North America’s big cities. The stories are beautifully complemented by photographs that evoke the hardship, the dignity, and the hope encompassed in 97 Orchard Street.
*Hopkinson, Deborah. Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880–1924. New York: Orchard Books, 2003.
Through the stories of five immigrants, the world of New York City’s tenements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comes alive with descriptions of the newcomers’ struggles and triumphs as they attended night school, abandoned customs, or in other ways acclimated to life in America. Some came as children, others as teenagers, all eager either to succeed on their own or to help their families. The text is supported by numerous tinted, archival photos of living and working conditions.
Kravitz, Danny. Journey to America: A Chronology of Immigration in the 1900s. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2015.
Millions of people made the long journey to America in the early 1900s. They looked for freedom, safety, or the promise of a new life. Follow the waves of immigrants that flooded into the United States to see why they came and how they changed the country.
*Pascal, Janet. Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
This biography traces Riis’s life and his evolution as a progressive social reformer. As the United States still seems to be divided into the well off and the “other half,” this well-written book will challenge readers to contemplate the social structure of contemporary America and what can be done to continue progressive reforms. Numerous black-and-white photographs and excerpts from Riis’s writings contribute to an insightful work.
Peacock, Louise. At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007.
This book follows a young person whose great-great-grandmother entered America through Ellis Island. As this young girl walks the halls of the famous site today, she wonders about the past, the people, and their hopes, dreams, and challenges.
*Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt. 1988. New York: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2001.
From a basket of old clothes, Anna’s babushka, Uncle Vladimir’s shirt, Aunt Havalah’s nightdress, and Aunt Natasha’s apron become The Keeping Quilt, passed along from mother to daughter for almost a century, beginning with a first-generation migrant from Russia. For four generations the quilt is a Sabbath tablecloth, a wedding canopy, and a blanket that welcomes babies warmly into the world.
*Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey. 1993. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013.
At once deeply personal yet expressing universally held emotions, this tale of one man’s love for two countries and his constant desire to be in both places captures readers’ attention and hearts. Beautifully illustrated by Say, the book was the recipient of the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1994.
Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
This imaginative graphic novel captures the sense of adventure and wonder that surrounds a new arrival on the shores of a shining new city. Wordless, but with perfect narrative flow, Tan gives us a masterfully rendered tale about the immigrant experience.
*Yaccarino, Dan. All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011.
Dan Yaccarino’s great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island with a small shovel and his parents’ good advice: “Work hard, but remember to enjoy life, and never forget your family.” Yaccarino recounts how the little shovel was passed down through four generations in a big Italian family.
YOU MUST OBTAIN A LICENSE/PERMISSION TO LEGALLY SCREEN MOST FILMS. Read more here.
*American Experience: America 1900 (Part II). (PBS, David Grubin Productions, Inc, 1998) The year 1900 sees a huge wave of immigrants—over a half-million people—arriving in the United States. With nearly three million residents, almost one-third of them foreign-born, New York is America’s largest city and the second largest in the world.
Obtain Right to Screen: Call PBS at 1-800-424-7963
*American Photography: A Century of Images. (PBS, 1999) Dramatic and intimate stories trace photography’s role as a recorder of public events, family historian, vehicle for artistic expression, and tool for influencing public opinion. The program captures the images of a century of change in this country and the role the camera has played both in creating and documenting it.
Obtain Right to Screen: Call PBS at 1-800-424-7963
I Learn America. Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng, directors. (New Day Films, 2013) Five immigrant teenagers come together during the school year at the International High School as they struggle to learn their new land in this documentary about immigration in the twenty-first century.
Obtain Right to Screen: Visit http://ilearnamerica.com/ for screening details.
Pay or Die. Richard Wilson, director. (Allied Artists, 1960) Set in the early twentieth-century in New York City, this story is based on the actual account of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle “The Black Hand,” the old Sicilian term for the Mafia.
Obtain Right to Screen: SWANK MOTION PICTURES, Phone: (800) 876-5577; Fax: (314) 289-2192
Ragtime. Milos Forman, director. (Paramount, 1981) Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel set in the New York City area from 1902 until 1912, Ragtime weaves together the stories of both fictional and historically prominent characters such as Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington.
Obtain Right to Screen: call (323) 956-5000 and ask for the Repertory/Non Theatrical Department
History of Poverty and Homelessness in New York City, from the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) This independent, nonprofit research and policy–analysis organization works to illuminate the complex issues of family homelessness and informs and enhances public policy related to homeless families, especially children.
Jacob Riis: Shedding Light On NYC’s “Other Half.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. June 30, 2008. This radio segment explores the work of Jacob Riis through interviews with various Riis scholars.
Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House Founded in 1889, Riis Settlement is named in honor of Jacob Riis. Today, Riis Settlement provides integrated social, cultural, educational, and health programs to more than 1,800 individuals annually in Long Island City, New York.
Mission US: An Interactive Way to Learn History. Mission 4: City of Immigrants Developed for use in middle and high school classrooms, Mission US engages students in the study of transformational moments in American history. Each mission consists of an interactive game and a set of curriculum materials that are aligned to national standards. In “City of Immigrants,” players navigate New York’s Lower East Side as Lena, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia. Trying to save money to bring her parents to America, she works long hours in a factory for little money and gets caught up in the growing labor movement.
Museum of the City of New York. Jacob Riis Photographs Browse through this digitized collection of Riis’s photographs. Zoom in, download, and explore.
Tenement Museum The Tenement Museum preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on the Lower East Side of New York City. Below are resources provided by the Tenement Museum.
- For Real: A Webcomic Documentary About Teen Immigrant Lives in NYC. For Real is an online comic that documents the lives of immigrant teens in New York today.
- Your Story, Our Story: Turn Students into Historians. Your Story, Our Story highlights immigration and migration stories of the past and the present. Use the site to explore immigration and migration stories, have students publish their own stories, and/or create a classroom exhibit.
Public Program Ideas
Here are several program ideas for varied audiences that relate to the Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives exhibition that can be adapted to your local audience and institution’s needs. Please contact our constituent services team to be put in touch with other venues hosting this show at 816-421-1388 or MoreArt@maaa.org to find out what other organizations are planning. Please consider sharing your own programming ideas and programming success stories with other venues. Email pictures, ideas, testimonials and more to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com.
Download a PDF
In Riis’s Footsteps: Photography and Social Advocacy (lecture, gallery discussion, workshop, or film screening)
In the late nineteenth century, Jacob Riis pioneered the use of flash photography in journalism in order to reveal the squalor of tenement life on the Lower East Side of New York City. Today, many photographers continue his mission of social advocacy, documenting the lives of the marginalized “other half” in an effort to challenge stereotypes, assert the humanity of their subjects, and inspire change. Invite a photographer to give a lecture, lead a discussion, and/or give a workshop about the role that social conscience plays in the work and the art of documentary photography.
Immigration in the Twenty-First Century (lecture, workshop, or film screening)
Help audiences understand what immigrants experience when they arrive in the United States today. Compare this experience to the immigrants photographed by Riis to give a complex look at immigration in the United States. Invite a representative from a local immigrant support group along with recent immigrants who are willing to share their stories with the audience.
Examining Poverty and Homelessness Today, a Century After Riis (lecture or panel discussion)
Organize a public program that explores the legacy of Jacob Riis’s journalism and photography circa 1900 for the work of journalists, historians, and community leaders today committed to raising public consciousness about urban poverty and homelessness. What have we learned from Riis about how historians and journalists can illuminate these social issues effectively and accurately? Invite a historian, community leader, or social worker, along with a journalist, to discuss poverty and homelessness in your community or region.
Oral History (workshop)
Almost every American has an immigration story. Whether it’s a part of family lore or a first-person experience, immigration is an integral part of the American experience. Host a workshop led by a historian or folklorist who can teach people how to conduct an oral interview, from equipment to questions to setting. Consider collecting these oral histories and donating them to your local historical society.
Tour traditional immigrant neighborhoods in your community (family day, K-12 tours, adult group tours)
Create a family-friendly event to explore traditional immigrant neighborhoods in your community that may compare to the Lower East Side of New York. Present the late-nineteenth-century history of the neighborhood, its geography, place names, dance, art-making, foods, family-owned businesses, etc. Use some of the hands-on activities from the educational outreach kit or lesson ideas found in the programming guide as inspiration. Consider partnering with other museums and/or organizations to assist in planning, hosting, and marketing your program.
Magic Lantern Show (performance)
Travel back to the time of Jacob Riis with an authentic 1890s magic-lantern show. Before the movies, magic lantern shows entertained audiences with projected color images, stories, live music, and audience participation. Riis himself was a famous lecturer who traveled far and wide with his box of lantern slides. The American Magic-Lantern Theater, directed by Terry Borton, is the only professional traveling theater company of its kind in the United States, and uses original antique projection equipment.
Contact Information: Contact Information: American Magic-Lantern Theater Box 44, Haddam, CT 06423; 860-345-7578; http://www.magiclanternshows.com/magiclanternshows.htm
History of Urban Planning (lecture or workshop)
Riis’s work led to changes in urban planning that created a better living environment for New York City’s citizens. His writing and photographs lead to housing improvement, new legislation, and communal spaces like public parks. Invite your local city planner or an urban planning faculty member at a local university to lead a talk about the history of urban planning in the United States or lead a workshop giving visitors an opportunity to experience the work of an urban planner.
Social Movements in Our Community (presentation, panel, or display)
Jacob Riis was a key motivator for social change in New York, working with other reformers of the day to bring about changes that dramatically improved the quality of life for the poor. Were there settlement houses in your community? Do they still exist, in some form, today? Which community leaders or organizations worked to improve the lives of the local poor one hundred years ago? Where are the key reformers and service providers today for the poor? Feature these local stories and issues in your programming by planning slide shows, panel discussions, or displays on a bulletin board at your venue.
World Day Against Child Labour (activity, lecture)
The international day to increase awareness of current child labor issues is observed on June 12, but this cause has pressing relevancy year round. Use the “Children of the Poor at Work” content discussion and occupation cards to present the child labor issues that Jacob Riis addressed in his work at the turn of the twentieth century. Invite a historian to give a talk about the progress made in child labor since Riis’s time and the various actions that precipitated that change. Bring the discussion into the present day by including an individual working to stop child labor abuses and protect working minors today. Consider bringing in a child welfare or child labor specialist from your state or a representative from one of the organizations in the Child Labor Coalition (http://stopchildlabor.org) to present on the current state of child labor in the US, your state, or nations around the world.
Media for Social Change: Then and Now (panel discussion or workshop)
Using the hands-on activity from the exhibition Programming Guide, “Media for Social Change: Then and Now,” plan a panel discussion or workshop with professionals in your community who have used a variety of different communications media to affect social change. Include some of the following: print, digital, and broadcast journalists; documentary filmmakers; public speakers; museum curators; and social media coordinators. Ask them to address the benefits and limitations of the media they employ and discuss how technology impacts their efforts. Select a current social issue or cause and brainstorm ways to use a variety of media to increase awareness of it in your community.
Sing-along for Social Change (participatory performance)
Using the Music component of the “Media for Social Change” activity in the exhibition Programming Guide as a starting point, organize a sharing circle event highlighting songs of social change. Communicate with participants in advance of the event, asking them to nominate selections by submitting recordings, lyrics, and background information about songs that have raised awareness of social issues, past or present. Curate a playlist for a listening event that presents an assortment of songs addressing issues related to labor, peace, justice, the environment, etc. Share the songs through recordings or live performance, planning sing-alongs when practical. Provide examples of songs that have helped make a difference throughout history.
Play Like It’s 1899 Family Day (family festival)
Organize a family festival day inspired by Jacob Riis’s photographs of children participating in recreational activities and the interpretive contents of the “Children of the Poor at Play” portion of the exhibition education kit. Focus on the creative, limited-resource recreation activities of 100–125 years ago. A kindergarten teacher, child care provider, or other early childhood specialist in your community could be a great resource for facilitating a variety of old fashioned, “unplugged” games and activities, such as hand-claps, circle games, dice games, field day games, and jump rope. Invite jump rope teams to demonstrate. Compare the features of playgrounds in your community with those photo-documented by Jacob Riis. Discuss examples of how playground equipment can reflect its time, location, and culture. Conduct a survey of how kids play today using the “How I Play Survey” in the education kit and present your findings in a display, looping slide show, or spoken presentation on this day. Ask an early childhood specialist to discuss the importance of play time to childhood development and to specifically speak to the merits of unplugged play. Consider promoting a Week of Unplugged Play with neighborhood children before your festival day. Ask neighborhood children to help promote and document your festival through social media.
Teddy Bears’ Picnic (children’s/family event)
Play on Jacob Riis’s friendship with fellow reformer President Theodore Roosevelt and the story of the creation of the teddy bear by hosting a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. (A teddy bear is one of the touchable objects in the exhibition education kit.) Offer picnic foods, story time, and craft activities to make bear clothing or accessories. Invite a children’s librarian to read a variety of books and play recordings related to the theme. Ask seamstresses in the community to operate a “health clinic” to mend bears in need of repair. Present honors to the oldest, smallest, largest, best dressed, and best bear doppelgänger brought to the event by attendees.
Treasures from the Attic—Vintage Toy Fair (family festival)
Share Riis’s photos of children at play as a starting point for discussing the toys that children played with 100–125 years ago. Invite patrons to bring antique and otherwise cherished toys to share in a show-and-tell that features personal stories, memories, and family histories associated with each object. Include toys that represent past generations and the cultural traditions of family members who immigrated to America. Involve a local historical society or children’s museum with a toy collection and expertise. Include related identification, dating, and trivia activities. Conduct vintage board games tournaments. Accept donations of new children’s toys on this day, to benefit a local charity.
The Thief's Christmas
Below is a full transcript of The Thief’s Christmas (New York Evening Sun, December 24, 1898) that is included in the exhibition. The document is written in Riis’s handwriting.
Download this transcript
The Thief’s Christmas
“It is that or starve, Captain! I can’t get a job. God knows I’ve tried, but without a recommend it’s no use. I ain’t no good at beggin.’ And—and—there’s the childer?”
There was a desperate note in the man’s voice that made the Captain turn and look sharply at him. A swarthy, strongly built man in a rough coat and with that in his dark face within told that he had lived longer than his years, stood at the door of the Detective Office. His hand that gripped the door handle shook so that the knob rattled in his grasp, but not with fear. He was no stranger to that place. Black Bill’s face had looked out from the Rogues’ Gallery longer than most of those now there could remember. The Captain looked him over in silence.
“You had better not, Bill!” he said. “You know what will come of it. When you go up again it will be the last time. And up you go, sure.”
The man started to say something, but choked it down and went out without a word. The Captain got up and rang his bell.
“Bill, who was here just now, is off again,” he said to the officer who came to the door. “He says it is steal or starve, and he can’t get a job. I guess he is right. Who wants a thief in his pay? And how can I recommend him? And still, I think he would keep straight if he had the chance. Tell Murphy to look after him and see what he is up to.”
The Captain went out, tugging viciously at his gloves. He was in very bad humor. The policeman at the Mulberry street door got hardly a nod for his cheery “Merry Christmas” as he passed.
“Wonder what’s crossed him,” he said, looking down the street after him.
The green lamps were lighted and shone upon the hurrying 6 o’clock crowds from the Broadway shops. In the great business buildings the iron shutters were pulled down and the lights put out, and in a little while the reporters’ boys that carried slips from Headquarters to the newspaper offices across the street were the only tenants of the block. A stray policeman stopped now and then on the corner and tapped the lamp post reflectively with his club as he looked down the deserted street and wondered, as his glance rested upon the Chief’s darkened windows, how it felt to have $6,000 a year and every night off. In the Detective Office the sergeant who had come in at roll-call stretched himself behind the desk and thought of home. The lights of a Christmas tree in the abutting Mott street tenement shone through his window, and the laughter of children mingled with the tap of the toy drum. He pulled down the sash, so as to hear better. As he did a strong draught swept his desk. The outer door slammed. Two detectives came in bringing a prisoner between them. A woman accompanied them. The sergeant pulled the blotter toward him mechanically and dipped his pen.
“What’s the charge?” he asked.
“Picking pockets in Fourteenth street. This lady is the complainant, Mrs. _______.”
The name was that of a well known police magistrate. The sergeant looked up and bowed. His glance took in the prisoner, and a look of recognition came into his face.
“Well, Bill. So soon?” he said.
The prisoner was sullenly silent. He answered the questions put to him briefly and was searched. The stolen pocketbook, a small paper package, and a crumpled letter were laid upon the desk. The sergeant saw only the pocketbook.
“Looks bad,” he said, with wrinkled brow.
“We caught him at it,” explained the officer. “Guess Bill has lost heart. He didn’t seem to care. Didn’t even try to get away.”
The prisoner was taken to a cell. Silence fell once more upon the office. The sergeant made a few red lines in the blotter and resumed his reveries. He was not in a mood for work. He hitched his chair nearer the window and looked across the yard. But the lights there were put out, the children’s laughter had died away. Out of sorts at he hardly knew what, he leaned back in his chair with his hands under the back of his head. Here it was Christmas eve, and he at the desk instead of being out with the old woman buying things for the children. He thought with a sudden pang of conscience of the sled he had promised to get for Johnnie and forgotten. That was hard luck. And what would Katie say when—
He had got that far when his eye, roaming idly over the desk, rested pon the little package taken from the thief’s pocket. Something about it seemed to move him with sudden interest. He sat up and reached for it. He felt it carefully all over. Then he undid the package slowly and drew forth a woolly sheep. It had the blue ribbon about its neck, with a tiny bell hung on it
The sergeant set the sheep upon the desk and look at it fixedly for better than a minute. Having apparently studied out its mechanism, he pulled its head and it baa-aed. He pulled it once more, and nodded. Then he took up the crumpled letter and opened it.
This is what he read, scrawled in a child’s uncertain hand:
“Deer Sante Claas—Pease wont yer bring me a sjeep wat bas. Aggie had won wonst. An Kate wants a dollie offul. In the reere 718 19 Street by the gas house. Your frend Will.” [spelling as is]
The sergeant read it over twice very carefully and glanced over the page at the sheep, as if taking stock and wondering why Kate’s dollie was not there. Then he took the sheep and the letter and went over to the Captain’s door. A gruff “Come in!” answered his knock. The Captain was pulling off his overcoat. He had just come in from his dinner.
“Captain,” said the sergeant, “we found this in the pocket of Black Bill, who is locked up for picking Mrs. _____’s pocket an hour ago. It is a clear case. He didn’t even try to give them the slip,” and he set the sheep upon the table and laid the letter beside it.
“Black Bill? Said the Captain, with something of a start, “the dickens you say!” And he took up the letter and read it. He was not a very good penman, was little Will. The Captain had even a harder time of it than the sergeant had had making out his message. Three times he went over it, spelling out the words, and each time comparing it with the woolly exhibit that was part of the evidence, before he seemed to understand. Then it was in a voice that would have frightened little Will very much could he have heard it, and with a black look under his bushy eyebrows, that he bade the sergeant: “Fetch Bill up here!” One might almost have expected the little white lamb to have ____ to its heels with fright at having raised such a storm, could it have run at all. But it showed no signs of fear. On the contrary, it baaed quite lustily when the sergeant should have been safely out of earshot. He heard it and grinned.
An iron door in the basement clanked and there were steps in the passageway. The doorman brought in Bill. He stood by the door, sullenly submissive. The Captain raised his head. It was in the shade.
“So you are back, are you?” he said.
The thief nodded.
The Captain bent his brows upon him and said with sudden fierceness, “You couldn’t keep honest a month, could you?”
“They wouldn’t let me. Who wants a thief in his pay? And the children were starving.” It was said patiently enough, but it made the Captain wince all the same. They were his only words. But he did not give in so easily.
“Starving?” he repeated harshly, “And that’s why you got this, I suppose?”
And he pushed the sheep from under the newspaper that had fallen upon it by accident and covered it up.
The thief looked at it and flushed to the temples. He tried to speak, but could not. His face worked and he seemed to be strangling. In the middle of his fight to master himself he saw the children’s crumpled message on the desk. Taking a quick step across the room he snatched it up, wildly, fiercely.
“Captain,” he gasped, and broke down utterly. The hardened thief wept like a woman.
The Captain rang his bell. He stood with his back to the room when the doorman came in. “Take him down,” he commanded. And the iron door clanged once more behind the prisoner.
Ten minutes later the reporters were discussing across the way the nature of “the case” which the night promised to develop. They had piped off the Captain and one of his trusted men leaving the building together, bound east. Could they have followed them all the way they would have seen them get off the car at Nineteenth street and go toward the gas house, carefully scanning the numbers of the houses as they went. They found one at last before which they halted. The Captain searched in his pocket and drew forth the baby’s letter to Santa Claus and they examined the number under the gas lamp. Yes, that was right. The door was open, and they went right through to the rear.
Up to the third story three little noses were flattened against the windowpane, and three childish mouths were breathing peepholes through which to keep a lookout for the expected Santa Claus. It was cold, for there was no fire in the room, but in their fever of excitement the children didn’t mind that. They were bestowing all their attention upon keeping the peepholes open.
“Do you think he will come?” asked the oldest boy—there were two boys and a girl—of Kate.
“Yes; he will. I know he will come. Papa said so,” said the child in a tone of conviction.
“I’m so hungry, and I want my sheep,” said Baby Will.
“Wait and I’ll tell you of the wolf,” said his sister and took him on her lap. She had barely started when there were steps on the stairs and a tap on the door. Before the half-frightened children could answer it was pushed open. Two men stood on the threshold. One wore a big fur overcoat. The baby eyed him in wide-eyed wonder.
“Is you Santa Claus?” he asked.
“Yes, my little man, and you are Baby Will?” said a voice that was singularly different from the harsh one Baby Will’s father had heard so recently in the Captain’s office, and yet very like it.
“See! This is for you, I guess,” and out of the big, roomy pocket came the wooly sheep and baa-aed right off as if it were his own pasture in which he was at home. And well might any sheep be content nestling at a baby heart so brimful of happiness as little Will’s was then, child of a thief though he was.
“Papa spoke for it, and he spoke for Kate, too, and I guess for everybody,” said the bogus Santa Claus, “and it is all right. My sled will be here in a minute. Now we will just get to work and make ready for him. All help.”
The sergeant behind the desk in the Detective Office might have had a fit had he been able to witness the goings-on in that rear tenement in the next hour; and then again he might not. There is no telling about those sergeants. The way that poor flat laid itself out of a sudden was fairly staggering. It was not only that a fire was made and that the pantry filled up in the most extraordinary manner; but a real Christmas tree sprang up, out of the floor as it were, and was found to be all besprinkled with gold and stars and cornucopias with sugar plums. From the top of it, which was not higher than that Santa Claus could easily reach it, because the ceiling was low, a marvellous doll with real hair and with eyes that could open and shut, looked down with arms wide open to take Kate to its soft wax heart. Under the branches of the tree browsed every animal that went into and came out of Noah’s ark, and there was a glorious game of Messenger Boy and Three Bad Bears, and honey-cakes and candy-apples, and a little yellow bird in a cage, and what not. It was glorious, glorious. And when the tea-kettle began to sing, skillfully manipulated by Santa Claus’s assistant, who nominally was known in Mulberry street as Detective Sergeant Murphy, it was just too lovely for anything. The baby’s eyes grew wider and wider, and Kate’s were shining with happiness, when in the midst of it all she suddenly stopped and said:
“But where is papa? Why don’t he come?”
Santa Claus gave a little start at the sudden question, but pulled himself together right away.
“Why, yes,” he said, “he must have got lost. Now you are all right, we will just go and see if we can find him. Mrs. McCarthy here next door will help you keep the kettle going and the lights burning till we come back. Just let me hear that sheep baa once. That’s right! I’ll bet we’ll find papa.” And out they went.
That evening, while Mr. _____, the Magistrate, and his good wife were viewing with mock dismay the array of little stockings at their hearth in their fine uptown house, and talking of the adventure of Mrs. _____ with the pickpocket, there came a ring at the doorbell and the Captain of the detectives was entered in. What he told them I do not know, but this I do know, that when he went away the honorable Magistrate went with him, and his wife waved goodby to them from the stoop with wet eyes as they drove away in a carriage hastily ordered up from a livery stable. While they drove downtown, the Magistrate’s wife went up to the nursery and hugged her sleeping little ones, one after the other, and tear drops fell upon their warm cheeks that had wiped out the guilt of more than one sinner before, and the children smiled in their sleep. They say among the simple-minded folk of far-off Denmark that then they see angels in their dreams.
The carriage stopped in Mulberry street in front of Police Headquarters and there was great scurrying among the reporters, for now they were sure of their “case.” But no “prominent citizen” came out, made free by the Magistrate, who opened court in the Captain’s office. Only a rough looking man with a flushed face, whom no one knew, and who stopped on the corner and looked back as one in a dream and then went east, the way the Captain and his man had gone on their expedition personating no less exalted a personage than Santa Claus himself.
That night there was Christmas indeed in the rear tenement “near the gas house,” for papa had come home just in time to share in its cheer. And there was no one who did it with a better will, for the Christmas evening that began so badly was the luckiest night in his life. He had the promise of a job on the morrow in his pocket along with something to keep the wolf from the door in the holidays. His hard days were over, and he was at last to have his chance to live an honest life. And it was the baby’s letter to Santa Claus and the baa sheep that did it all, with the able assistance of the Captain and the sergeant. Don’t let us forget the sergeant.
In Riis’s hand:
Jacob A. Riis
This was the last Xmas story I wrote for my paper, the Evening Sun. They laughed it to scron in the office, and made no end of fun of it. And yet, of all the stories I have written I like this best. It moved me more deeply than any of the rest. J.A.R.
Settlement Houses in 1911
We created a list of all of the Settlement Houses in the United States and the territory of Hawaii* in 1911. In that year, there were 406 active settlement houses. Use this list to find Settlement Houses in your city or state. This list is from the Handbook of Settlements by Robert Archy Woods, Albert J. Kennedy, and Russell Sage Foundation (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1911). The information was made available courtesy of the Elmer L. Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota.
*Alaska did not become a territory of the United States until 1912.
Download the list
We have compiled speaker ideas, as well as information on community and regional resources. Download as pdf
Professional Development Workshop for Teachers
Are you interested in hosting a workshop for teachers? The Museum of the City of New York will send a team of their museum educators to your institution to lead a hands-on activity using materials from the exhibition. Each session is ninety minutes and includes access to primary and secondary sources, techniques for connecting the materials to the classroom curriculum, and activities that support the Common Core Standards. For more information or to book a workshop, contact EY Zipris at firstname.lastname@example.org and Franny Kent at email@example.com.
List of Speakers
Associate Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota
Ryan Allen is an associate professor of community and economic development in the urban and regional planning area. His research focuses on the community and economic development processes of immigrants in the United States. He is interested in immigrant home ownership and entrepreneurship. Small stipend ($200) plus travel expenses.
Documentary Photographer and Associate Professor of Photography
The New School, New York, NY
Documentary photographer, writer, and intellectual property lawyer, Michelle Bogre was the chair of photography at Parsons from 1995–2008. Her photographs and articles have appeared in national magazines, including: American Photo, Popular Photography, Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, Stern, U.S. News and World Report, and the European Journal of Law Reform; and in books including: Time-Life Annual photography series, The Family of Women, Beauty Bound, and The Design Dictionary (Birkhauser Press, 2008). Her work has also been featured in the exhibition The Way We Worked at the Lawrence O’Brien gallery, National Archives in Washington, D.C., and two of her pieces hang permanently at the Archives. She is a member of the visual arts foundation board of the Tierney Foundation and member of the Society for Photographic Education. Ms. Bogre is available to present programs at venues in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York City.
Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College
309 Skinner Hall
South Hadley, MA 01075
Daniel Czitrom is Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, where his teaching focus is American cultural and political history. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, he graduated from Bronx High School of Science and SUNY at Binghamton, and he received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Czitrom co-authored Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn of the Century New York and is available to present his slide show, “Jacob Riis’s New York,” or to speak on other related topics. From 2011–2013, he served as the historical advisor for Copper, an original dramatic series set in Civil War–era New York City and broadcast over BBC America. Czitrom has also appeared as a featured on-camera commentator for numerous documentary film projects, including the Rise and Fall of Penn Station (PBS/American Experience 2014), The Great Transatlantic Cable (PBS/American Experience, 2005), Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery (Mixed Greens Films, 2003), New York: A Documentary Film (PBS, 1999), and American Photography: A Century of Images (PBS, 1999). He is also a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.
Distinguished Professor of Sociology
Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is a 2017 Berlin Prize Fellow (American Academy in Berlin) and 2017–18 Guggenheim Fellow. She is available to speak to venues in the Northeast United States, comparing turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigration with immigration today. Dr. Foner received her B.A. from Brandeis University and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She has authored or edited eighteen books including From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (Yale University Press, 2000, Theodore Saloutos Award of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society); In a New Land: A Comparative View of Immigration (NYU Press, 2005, Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2006); Not Just Black and White: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States (edited with George Fredrickson, Russell Sage Foundation, 2004, Honorable Mention, Thomas and Znaniecki Distinguished Book Award of the ASA International Migration Section); One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2013); and New York and Amsterdam: Immigration and the New Urban Landscape (edited with Jan Rath, Jan Willem Duyvendak, and Rogier van Reekum, NYU Press, 2014). Her most recent book is Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe (co-authored with Richard Alba, Princeton University Press, 2015, Honorable Mention, Distinguished Book Award of the Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration Section of the International Studies Association and Honorable Mention, Thomas and Znaniecki Distinguished Book Award of the ASA International Migration Section).
Associate Professor of History
Wentworth Institute of Technology
Dr. Ella Howard is an Assistant Professor of History at Wentworth Institute of Technology, where she teaches American history, material culture, popular culture, and urban history. She has researched the influence of historic preservation and tourism on the development of Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Charleston, South Carolina. Her books include Immigration in the 21st Century: Making Americans, Remaking America (2015), and Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America (2013).
Curator, Jacob A. Riis: How The Other Half Lives
Bonnie Yochelson, formerly Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, is currently an independent curator and art historian with a specialty in photography. She has written extensively on photography, including: Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn of the Century New York; Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, The Complete WPA Project; New York to Hollywood: The Photography of Karl Struss; and Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography. She teaches the history of photography in the MFA Program in Photography, Video and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and she wrote regularly for “The City Visible,” a New York Times column in “The City” section.
Community and Regional Resources
Tap into YOUR local experts and scholars to tailor programs to audiences you wish to attract and serve. Contact local groups with whom you might wish to collaborate who might also serve as speakers. Potential sources for collaboration or for program design, audience development, or speaker outreach might include:
- Universities or local colleges: American History, American Studies, Education, Journalism, Social Work, Studio Art/Photography, Urban Planning• Universities or local colleges: American History, American Studies, Education, Journalism, Social Work, Studio Art/Photography, Urban Planning
- Photojournalists in your area who cover local, national, or international news
- Settlement Houses that may still exist in your area or local historical societies, libraries, or archives that maintain resources about the history of former Settlement Houses
- Organizations or immigration lawyers that assist recent immigrants
- Area middle and high schools
- Senior or community centers
- Arts and culture centers
- Other museums
- Local media resources (television station, newspaper, public radio)
Involve these groups in your program planning and/or invite them to the exhibition opening or other programs, or hold a reception just for them. These organizations can offer valuable ideas and feedback, provide fundraising opportunities, share VIP guest lists, and help market the exhibition and related programming. Your state arts council, state humanities council, or regional arts organizations may be able to help you locate regional speakers or program partners.
- State arts councils: https://www.arts.gov/partners/state-regional; Or call the National Endowment for the Arts at 202-682-5400
- State humanities councils: http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/statecouncils.html; Or call the National Endowment for the Humanities at 800-NEH (634)-1121
- Historical Societies/Preservation Organizations: http://www.preservationdirectory.com/preservationorganizationsresources/organizationcategories.aspx
- The U.S. Regional Arts Organizations/State arts agencies: http://www.usregionalarts.org/
Lesson 1: Playgrounds and Parks in the City
Lesson Plan #1: Playgrounds and Parks in the City
By analyzing historic images, students will learn about the public health issues New Yorkers faced in the late nineteenth century. They will also understand how Jacob Riis used his photographs to advocate for building playgrounds and parks in especially dense neighborhoods. Students will then consider the role of playgrounds and parks in their own neighborhoods and design a new recreational space.
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Lesson Plan 2: An Evolving Photographer
Lesson Plan #2: An Evolving Photographer: From Candids to Portraits
By examining a selection of photographs and textual excerpts by Jacob Riis, students will consider Riis’s different techniques for capturing the plight of individuals in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side in the late nineteenth century. They will consider how his portrayals evolved, and debate the ethics of Riis’s approach to depicting working class New Yorkers.
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Lesson Plan 3: How the Other Half Works
Lesson Plan #3: How the Other Half Works: Immigration and Labor at the Turn of the Century
Students will analyze visual and textual primary sources and learn about working conditions for immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York. In particular, students will gain an understanding of how labor frequently blurred the line between work and home, at times involving whole families. They will also consider how different reformers envisioned solutions to the labor problems of the day.
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Lesson 4: Images and Technology in Jacob Riis's Era
Lesson Plan #4: Images and Technology in Jacob Riis’s Era
This lesson examines the different formats and uses of Jacob Riis’s images in the late nineteenth century. Students will learn about technological innovations, such as flash powder, the stereograph, the magic lantern, and the halftone print, and how differences in these formats shaped the impact of Riis’s images. They will also consider the ethical ambiguities of Riis’s early photographic techniques.
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Activity: Media for Social Change
Media for Social Change: Then and Now
In addition, the hands-on content extension activity, “Media for Social Change: Then and Now,” with twelve printable Media for Social Change cards, is included at the back of this Programming Guide. The activity explores how various media have been used as agents for social change, both historically and in the present day. Examples cover: photography, print media, broadcasting, digital and social media, lectures, exhibitions, music, and art.
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