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Jacob Riis, "Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'"

Reforming America 1878-1920

American reform is generally associated with urban economic and social reform: cities, their poverty and inhumane social, housing, and living conditions; industrial capitalism and its exploitation of workers and its inhumane working environments; and the outlying sites where the raw materials for urban industrial capitalism were mined or milled-- the coal mines, for example, or the child-labor-employing extraction industries.

The end of the Civil War unleashed a rapid acceleration in the trends of industrialization and urbanization, and provided a cadre of reformers who had been working in health and sanitation commissions during the war.

By the '80s, the difficulty lay with providing persuasive evidence of the dire conditions in cities and factories, in order to persuade citizens and those with money, power and influence, that it was time to pressure government to regulate and improve conditions.

At first the emphasis wasn't on government, but upon private and voluntary reform-- pressure put on factories and their owners, on landlords and their families, on financiers and speculators, by religious leaders, neighbors, citizens and social organizations.

Jacob Riis came out of this volunteerist movement, but he came during his career-- 1880-1910, roughly-- to a shifted position, arguing for steadily increasing government engagement to regulate, and to punish, the forces of environmental, social, and economic exploitation.

Riis began as a newspaperman; he was a Danish immigrant with a middle-class background who experienced the poverty and desperation of immigrants after the Civil War, and the shock and humiliation never left him. He took up photography as a tool for social reform in the late 1880s, first hiring photographers, then making pictures himself. A sampling of his images is meant to show something of the narrative rhythm of his presentations, whether in newspaper articles, books, illustrated lectures or speeches. He would usually begin by appealing to his middle-class viewers' interest in the life of the poor, promising them a "tour... of the darker half;" soon his audiences found themselves assailed by shocking evidence of inhumane conditions, often amplified by racial and ethnic stereotypes the Riis shared with his viewers and readers. Then came a ringing call for reform, accompanied, often, by pictures of the effect of new environmental conditions on the lives and souls of children, immigrants, and workers.

View Riis Sequence

Riis's work brought a wave of urban reform, and moved the cause of reform from city to nation, and from local voluntary groups to the federal government. Legal reforms became the next goal-- to implement and enforce local, civic, state and federal laws in areas as wide-ranging as land-use and child-labor.

The next great reform photographer was Lewis Wickes Hine, whose work began with studies of immigrants at the port-of entry, Ellis Island in New York Harbor in the first years of the 20th century; they ended with studies of workers on the Empire State Building in the 1930s.

Hine's work shifted not only as he himself changed his beliefs, but as the nation itself changed-- laws were passed, and enforced, and until the Great Depression of the '30s, there was a relatively steady shift from anger to optimism about the progress of Americans economically and socially. Hine's work in this sequence gives some sense of that shift in thinking.

View Hine Sequence

With the Great Crash of the '30s, both city and countryside were economically devastated. This time private reform efforts that resulted in reports and books competed with the increasingly visible and celebrated work of government investigators. Many of these sought to use photographs and other artworks in order to rally the country behind the Roosevelt administration's New Deal, a social-welfare philosophy unprecedented in American political, social and economic life. Magazines like Life and Fortune sponsored forays into the South and the farm regions of the West, and a number of books appeared as well. But it was the photographic work under the rubric of the Farm Security Administration, the FSA, combined with the paintings, drawings, and writings of the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, that have come to dominate the historical imagination.