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?

 

Copyright © 2011 by Can-Do Women. Images on this site are used for the express purposes of commentary and criticism under the fair use doctrine.