The Quest for a Better Life

Jacob A. Riis (b. 1849 – d.1914) was a social reformer, journalist and photographer who documented life in the slums of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.   His photos are incredible, and show with a gritty raw honesty, the abject filth and poverty that residents of the city’s tenements and streets dealt with everyday.  By today’s standards of Western living, it’s unimaginable, how people survived in such crowded and dirty conditions.  But survive they did.  Raising families, working in sweatshops, battling to put food on the table, with either determination or resignation.

Many of the area’s residents were immigrants who came through New York’s Ellis Island with dreams of a better life in America.  For the immigrants who found themselves trapped in slum-life and this cycle of grinding poverty, I wonder if they ever questioned their decision to emigrate?

On perusing Riis’s book, “How The Other Half Lives”, I was particularly moved by the photos of  the women and children.  What a terribly hard-knock life it must have been for these Can-Do Women and their families.  Here is a selection of some of Riis’s photos which I think speak for themselves.


Family at home in one room tenement, 1910

Old Mrs Benoir, and Indian woman, in her Hudson Street attic



Family making artificial flowers

In the home of an Italian rag-picker, Jersey Street


If you’d like to know more about  Jacob Riis and his work, click here for an excellent anthology including photo galleries by National Public Radio. And,  if you are ever in New York City, I highly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, to get a feel for what life must have been like for the area’s residents at the time Riis took these photographs.

What are your immediate thoughts when you look at these photos?  Did any of your family come through New York’s Ellis Island?



5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ruthie
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 05:44:20

    My immediate thought is to wonder at how neat and orderly these cramped surroundings appear.And yet families with several children lived in these tenements , many in just one room. How did the women manage the intricacies of daily living. Up and down flights of stairs to visit the backyard “outhouse”, heaving buckets of water and coal up those stairs, taking a turn in the backyard wash house (if there was one) managing a recalcitrent stove and putting up with it in the heat of summer – and either going out to work or doing piecework for a pittance. But generations of nameless women managed this way of life.
    I have seen the Tennement Museum in New York and I would love to see the one in Glasgow.The collection of photographs is absolutely riverting.


  2. Katie
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 20:58:51

    What a cool bunch of photos. My grandparents were immigrants. Unfortunately, I don’t know all of their story, but I know that they didn’t have much education and lived in conditions that would be so foreign to me today. They came to the US around the time these pictures were taking, so I can picture them there. Thanks for posting.



  3. Can-Do Woman
    Jan 30, 2011 @ 11:06:10

    My husband’s family came through Ellis Island from Italy at the turn of the last century. In fact, his grandfather came alone as a small child of just five years old. He was an orphan and was sent to the U.S. to live with relatives. Upon arrival he was immediately sent to work in his uncle’s grocery store in New Jersey, although he was able to go to school as well ! Think of the five year olds you know today. Can you imagine putting them on a boat by themselves for a weeks-long journey like this? The mind really boggles. I guess people just did what they had to do to survive. And as a kid living in these kinds of circumstances, I guess you just grew up really quickly. It really is all is just so unimaginable.


  4. nancyspoint
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:23:44

    Anna, The photographs are really something. My first impression was they all look sooo serious, but then I guess people didn’t smile for photos then. It also made me wonder just how bad the conditions they left behind were. It makes me realize how much they wanted a better life, otherwise, what was the point of more misery? My grandparents were all immigrants, and their families came over in segments, which must have been awful in itself, splitting family up like that and not knowing… It’s all pretty amazing. Thanks for sharing all this stuff. We shouldn’t forget.


    • Can-Do Woman
      Feb 02, 2011 @ 08:59:18

      But I wonder how much they really knew about where they were going to? Like you say though, circumstances must have been pretty awful at home, to cause them to make the decision to just up and leave to start a new life in a new country. Thanks for commenting Nancy !


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