Jacob Riis, Childhood, and Reform | Christa Vogelius

Jacob Riis, Childhood, and Reform

by Christa Vogelius

Mads Øvilsen Fellow, Department of Comparative Literature
University of Copenhagen
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]


Criticizing some of the institutions that grew out of the housing reform movement to take in orphaned or abandoned children, Jacob Riis writes in Children of the Poor (1892), “Those are, that are merely halfway-houses to the ultimate family home that shall restore the child what it has lost. Failing in that, they become public tenements, with most of the bad features of the tenement left out, but the worst retained: the smothering of the tenant’s individuality. He is saved from becoming a tough to become an automaton” (277). That the “worst” feature of New York’s turn-of-the-century tenements, which had notoriously high child mortality rates, and whose unsanitary conditions were responsible for local and more widespread cholera outbreaks, was “the smothering of the tenant’s individuality” is critical to understanding the larger aims of Riis’s reform work and the ethos of the housing reform community in which he worked into the early decades of the twentieth century. Rather than being only pragmatically motivated by the physical health of buildings and their inhabitants, which takes up much of Riis’s explicit focus, the aim of this reform work lies in an effort to save this individual from the fate of objecthood and automation. For Riis, as for many of his contemporary sentimentally-informed reformers, the heart of this individuality lies in the ability to exist as a feeling subject, and the most fruitful site for reform in the emotionally and physically malleable child.

This paper details the dynamics of sentimentality in Riis’s reform texts and photographic images, through the figure of the child, who was particularly central to the era’s ideas of human and population development.  The objectification of tenement dwellers in Riis’s writing, is not, as has often been charged, a sentimental failure, but a byproduct of an era of reform-thinking that understood beings as intimately shaped by their environments, and the architectural structures of cities as dynamic vessels whose structures held out both potential and delimitations to their inhabitants. The best candidates for reform were the very young, who had not yet been irredeemably shaped by their environments.

The tenement districts in New York were a focus of reform work since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, when upper-middle-class houses were subdivided into cramped, sometimes windowless apartments to house the new influx of immigrant workers in the city. When Riis arrived in the city from Denmark as a young carpenter in 1870, he lived, as many new immigrants, on and off in these districts, and after a few initial years of odd jobs, he began covering the area as a crime reporter. In 1890, his first photo-text, How the Other Half Lives, became a bestseller and brought more widespread attention to reform projects, in part through new technologies for reprinting his flash photographs. Riis would go on to write several more reform-oriented books before his death in 1914 and is credited with helping to pass significant housing safety legislation.

But though Riis’s short-lived photographic career has been seriously studied, his reform texts are often dismissed as bad sentimentality— overwrought writing that keeps its readers at a distance, framing its characters as “the other half” and evoking pity rather than genuine empathy. My argument in this paper is that confronting the problem of subjecthood and objecthood in Riis’s texts— that his middle-class readers are addressed as feeling subjects, and his lower-class characters are depicted as unfeeling objects— unveils the motivating assumptions behind Riis’s urban reform work and the dominant narratives of this time:  that environment has a central role in shaping character, and on a larger scale human development. Riis, like many others in his contemporary reform movement, understood species development through the idea of “impressibility,” which emphasized the influence of environment and the possibility of significant hereditary change taking place within one lifetime.   This premise lies behind Riis’s central, troubling representation of the poor as unfeeling objects and generalized types that depend on the superior subjecthood of Riis’s middle-class readers, as well as of course Riis himself, for their development beyond this state.

Children of the Poor          

Riis’s  project of urban reform is fundamentally imbricated in what Kyla Schuller calls “biophilanthropy, or the elite and middle-class effort to impress a new heritable endowment on the bodies and minds of the children of the poor and otherwise allegedly uncivilized in order to render their labor profitable to the population as a whole” (136).  The child, with a “plastic, passive soul” in the words of minister Horace Bushnell (19) was generally considered particularly susceptible to environmental impressibility and was therefore the focus of much urban reform. The nation’s most prominent children’s welfare organization, the Children’s Aid Society, offers a prime example of such biophilanthropy. Founded by Charles Loring Brace, a cousin of the sentimental novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and the minister Henry Ward Beecher, the CAS had founded dozens of industrial schools and lodging houses in New York by the turn into the twentieth century. The organization is best-known today for its controversial Emigration Plan, or “orphan trains,” which from 1854 to 1929 migrated 100,000 German, Irish, and Italian American children from Manhattan to work as laborers in rural homes, and which by the late decades of the nineteenth century was already facing accusation of exploitative conditions (Schuller 135). The stated motivation for emigration, however, was the removal of children from a pernicious urban environment to the more wholesome influence of rural life. Like Riis, Brace strongly advocated for placement in a family environment over earlier founded institutional settings like orphanages and juvenile reformatories, because the more personal family system “would inspire their faith and spirit of individuality, ”(qtd in Schuller 140) an idea that for Riis at least, was closely tied to their emotional development as subjects.

Riis not only donated the proceeds of some of his lectures to the CAS, but much of his second book, Children of the Poor, reads as a manifesto to Brace’s ideals. He mentions the successes of the society in reducing vagrancy and theft among children from the book’s first chapter and dedicates an entire chapter, near the end of the book, to the merits of Brace’s Emigration Plan, a chapter in which Brace’s portrait is prominently reproduced (7, 188). But even beyond these direct references, Riis shows a clear debt to Brace’s interpretation of human evolution and reform philosophy. From the earliest pages of the text, Riis reiterates the idea that “the child is a creature of environment, of opportunity, as children are everywhere” (4). Reformers therefore have their best hopes not with adults, but in “getting hold of their children that they bend every effort, and with a success that shows how easily these children can be moulded for good or for bad” (57). In other sections, he takes on the question of heredity more directly, and shows that his notion of inheritance also implies the Lamarckian idea that change within a generation can be passed on to future generations:

What this question of heredity amounts to, whether in the past or in the future, I don´t know. […] I have known numerous instances of criminality, running apparently in families for generations, but there was always the desperate environment as the unknown factor in the make-up. Whether that bore the greatest share of the blame, or whether the reformation of the criminal to be effective should have begun with the grandfather, I could not tell. (135-6).

The suggestion that “the reformation of the criminal” should have “begun with the grandfather,” belies the explicit contrast between heredity and environment, as Riis’s idea of heredity is distinct from environmental influence only in implying that the grandfather’s environment, as well as the grandson’s own, may have an influence on his well-being. This very fluid notion of inheritance is further undermined by Riis’s subsequent statement that the experience of “practical philanthropists”— including those of the Children’s Aid Society— has convinced him that “the bugbear of heredity is not nearly as formidable as we have half taught ourselves to think” (136).

For sentimental writing, invested in the act of reading as “a bodily act” (Sanchez-Eppler 100), this idea of “impressibility” applied to the relation between characters and their environments as much as between readers and their books. “Impressibility,” in a basic sense, underlies an idea fundamental to readings of sentimentality as a genre, and to the function of Riis’s texts in the world: that readers could be fundamentally changed, and politically activated, by the texts that they read, while all were fundamentally shaped by the environments they inhabited. The premise of impressibility gave an urgency to physical and intellectual environments, and motivated reform work, as nothing less than the shape of the American population depended on it, particularly in cities like New York, where an influx of new immigrants made up a constantly increasing population in the last decades of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth.

Beyond this basic idea of environmental influence, however, there are distinctions between Riis’s understanding of “impressibility” and the dominant social interpretation of the term. Schuller defines impressibility as “the often-racialized quality of being easily moved,” (7); the understanding of who was capable of biological adaptations to environment was influenced by race, with whites generally considered as the most impressible. Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans were often understood as examples of older races, incapable of cultural adaptation. This staticity overlaps with what Hortense Spillers calls the existence as “flesh,” in which the black body is considered an element out of time, useful only for what it can be set to produce for others, and what Sianne Ngai calls “animatedness” in which Asians and Africans are portrayed as lacking in individual agency, moving only through the will of others (Spillers 67, Ngai 89-125). The racialized body was a mechanical body, one incapable of self-constitution, and ideally situated for labor exploitation.  In line with this view, for instance, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, believed that children of Western European background were most easily transformed by their environments, and consequently the CAS focused its attention on Irish, German, and to a lesser extent, Italian immigrants. Their reform work largely excluded African American children and immigrants of other nationalities as not sufficiently malleable to reward reform (Schuller 142).

Both Spillers’ and Ngai’s discussions of racialized mechanization resonate with Riis’s figure of the automaton, but unlike these first two, the culprit is entirely environmental.  For Riis, all subjects can become automatons, but all are equally capable of being saved from this fate, and both potential salvation and damnation lie in environmental factors. In this sense, Riis’s conception of impressibility is accordingly more inclusive than for instance Brace’s and takes into consideration both African Americans and non-Western immigrants. In his chapter on the Fresh Air Fund, which provides rural vacations for poor urban children as part of New York’s biophilanthropy, he notes that “Against colored children there is no prejudice” (Children of the Poor 157). In How the Other Half Lives, Riis’s descriptions of African Americans are rife with generalizations, concludes that, considering challenges such as rent inflation and job discrimination, African Americans “may be seen to have advanced much farther and faster than before suspected, and to promise, after all, with fair treatment, quite as well as the rest of us, his white-skinned fellow-citizens, had any right to expect” (158). Though patronizing, this statement subscribes very clearly to an idea of “advancement” which has more in common with contemporary African American advocacy than with a static conceptualization of the racialized body as “flesh.”

The scientific subtexts to Riis’s representations reveals objectification as not an inevitability, but a principal threat of the ills of tenement housing. Locating personal alienation  in environment, he, as many other reformers at this time, holds out the possibility of a radical species (re)volution through building legislation. This embrace of the universality of evolutionary potential carries with it its own problems, including arguably the extreme prioritization  of youth. At the same time, it is lies in stark contrast to later, more fixed genetic understandings of race that offered eugenic solutions, such as ethnic quotas, birth control and sterilization, to the problems associated with poverty and immigration.

Works Cited

Bushnell, Horace. Unconscious Influence, a Sermon. London: Partridge & Oakey, 1852.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890.

—. The Children of the Poor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. “Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition” In The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in 19th Century America. Ed. Shirley Samuels. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992): 92-114.

Schuller, Kyla. The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64-81.


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