Images of “The Other Half”

Homeless boys sleeping.

There is an explosion and a flash of light.  A revolver has fired against the black midnight of New York’s lower east side.  But there is no crime: the cartridges’ destination is a frying pan, and their purpose to is ignite enough light for a clumsy camera to take a picture.  In the late 1880s, a reporter for the Tribune and the Associated Press bureau is trying to document scenes he’s frequented during the course of his job.

Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism.  An immigrant from Denmark, he published these early images in a book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890.  Recently named by the Library of Congress to “The Books That Shaped America,” it displayed the lives of the poor living in tenement houses, and the homeless, in the nation’s largest city.  Riis at first hired a photographer, but it wasn’t long before he bought a new camera that could be portaged throughout the city, and taught himself how to use it.  He caught his clothes on fire more than once, and had to smother a blaze his equipment started in a home where several blind people were sleeping.

An Italian woman sorts rags in a cellar.
His book helped reformers get their point across.  It was so successful at making the middle and upper class aware of the situation that the government soon provided sewers, plumbing and trash collection for the area around Mulberry Street known as “The Bend.”  Better apartments at lower rents replaced the old ones.  Squalid police lodging houses were permanently shut down.

Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”   Offered several upper level government jobs, he declined, to continue what he considered more important, sharing the plight of the poor.  “He has been my brother since I met him,” TR said.




 “Hunting River Thieves”

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, How the Other Half Lives presented the photographs in a form which was overdrawn by notable artists.  These were in stark contrast to the pictures printed today in halftones, which break them into a series of dots.

The timeless photos have beauty in spite of the despicable circumstances that prompted them.  The beauty of a child, of a soul, of a bridge over a river at night.  The beauty of hope that some American citizens would get a better chance, made possible by the dedication of Jacob Riis.

Some of the information in this post comes from the preface by Charles A Madison for How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover, 1971)  

Photo of Jacob Riis

Richmond Hill Historical Society photo

By the by, the 2012 “Books That Shaped America” exhibit may still be browsed online at  What others do you suppose made the list?  Guess before you look.

Our Young Folks

Not wanting to be outbid, I clicked “Buy It Now” on the eBay page.  Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents seemed a fair price for something almost 150 years old.  But would it turn to dust in my hands?

A stiff envelope arrived in our mailbox the next week, and I slid out the contents.  There, with its orange cover detached, was an 1869 copy of Our Young Folks.  It had been a popular children’s magazine published by Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston after the Civil War.  They charged $2 in advance for a year’s subscription.


I had read issues of this magazine online from college libraries.  It is an endearing look at Victorian childhood, a primary source for the same.  Here was what boys and girls of eight, nine and ten were reading as industry and invention changed their somewhat idyllic world.

And who were the people editing the words, phrases and sentences for a wide audience of children?  For awhile, there were three.  All had been teachers, and all were poets.

  • John T. Trowbridge, who also wrote The South, A Tale of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, The Drummer Boy, and the Jack Hazard series
  • Lucy Larcom, who wrote an autobiography called A New England Girl, which told about her own child labor in a textile mill
  • Gail Hamilton, (pen name for Mary Abigail Dodge), who was an early proponent of equal education and occupations for women

They were in good company — friends included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Greenleaf Whittier.  The editors chose stories, poems, illustrations and activities (some by themselves) of interest to children.  Many were about the outdoors.  For example: “The City Girl,” (1865), a contrast between city and country children with pointers on how the two could be friends; “Swinging on a Birch Tree” (1867); “Bird-Catching,” (1867), a poem accompanied by an engraving by Winslow Homer; and “Strawberries,” (1868), a conversation between a child and a berry.

 Engraving by Winslow Homer for the magazine.  (

They also included “Our Letter Box,” which printed letters from children, very popular as indicated by the number of entries each month.  “A bright little new subscriber says: ‘Having set my heart on Our Young Folks, here goes my one dollar for it for six months.  By that time I can earn another dollar.  The way I learned how good a magazine it was — we borrowed a few numbers of a neighbor, then Mother bought me a number when she went to town, and this year I feel as if I must have it.'”  The young man named Frank also submitted a story about his cat, Mrs. Socrates, which followed.

In 1873 Our Young Folks was bought out by a new magazine, St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas was enormously successful, reaching 100,000 subscribers in 1883, and published until 1940.  It was only trumped in the late Nineteenth Centry by The Youth’s Companion (remember the Ingalls girls reading it?) which published 500,000 copies at a time.

The four Roosevelt children: Anna, Theodore, Elliott and Corinne, and their little neighbor Edith Carow loved Our Young Folks.  They still read it as adults, and Theodore said he learned more about life from it than he did from his college classes.

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(My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson.)


Had I lived in their time I’m sure I would have read it.  It is excellent material, and sheds light on our country’s history, a small piece of which I now own — covered in faded yet still glowing card stock.

Podcast the First



In the cold outside/cozy inside days of winter, maybe you’ll have time to listen to some of my book.  Or is there a restless younger person in your house who would like to hear a different take on history?  One of the things I miss most about the classroom is reading aloud to the kids, and if you want to sit Indian-style on the floor, go right ahead!  The first reading is from Chapter Two, “Our Young Folks.”



Book cover photograph courtesy

Books We Love

Audience, I was writing, is made up of the readers on your radar.  It is the middle word in “PAT,” an acronym designed to help young writers focus.  Purpose, Audience, Topic: I preached it many times in front of and weaving among the desks of older elementary students.  But this will wait for another time, and I’m sure I will find enough to say about it, because an author’s audience is also his or her market.  The commercial aspect of books can’t be ignored if they are to be read by more than a few.

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Instead this week I’ll ask you a question.  What books do you remember from childhood?  What pieces of classic or not-so-classic literature amazed you, got you interested in storytelling, history loving, sci fi  imagining, or subject investigating?  What are the books you loved to read?

Sometimes I visit the bookshelf in our spare bedroom.  A few of the volumes there are ragged-looking ones I kept from elementary school or jr. high (not called middle school then) but many I read were reluctantly returned to the library or went the way of my mother’s garage sales.  I have made a point to get copies of my favorites from used bookstores or online, with more always on the list.  I read all or parts of them to my fifth graders during my teaching days.  They weren’t going to miss them if I could help it.

TR said once that books are as individual as friends – and most of his cherished library can still be seen on shelves at the family home, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island.  There are more than a few children’s books among them.   He thought every good children’s book had something for adults, too, and I agree.  A friend who has a blog recently suggested reading a children’s book as a practical way to cope with grief.  Books make us happy!  Books quench a thirst.  Here are a few from my early canteen.

The Bobbsey Twins series was what I really wanted to read before I knew how, because I saw my sister go through one book after another.  Finally I read them, slowly at first and picking up speed as I got older.  I loved the idea of two sets of twins in a family, and their simple adventures, even though they were written many years before I was born.  This was probably the first time I thought about characterization, because of the difference of the twins’ ages and appearances.  I remember wondering about strange things like magic lantern shows and wind-up toys they had.

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About the time my fluency took off, I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, noticing distinct differences between the book and the movie, which I loved.  I did like the book better, and thought MGM should have at least included the little green fountains that sprayed perfume into the air during Dorothy’s stay at the wizard’s castle.  I eagerly read the sequels, some by L. Frank Baum, and some by others.  Ozma of Oz is my favorite of the rest, with new characters of Tik Tok, the Nome King, and the Royal Family of Ev.  The plot takes a twisting route of turns, and I think it must have encouraged my imagination quite a bit.  (Subsequent attempts at movies, such as Return to Oz were fanciful but do not compare to the original tales).

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My parents sent for the first Readers Digest Treasury for Young Readers for us.  I read it from cover to cover many times.  This brought me to realize that true stories can be just as interesting as made up ones.  Two boys found a real pirate’s treasure, a pint-sized baseball team won the Little League World series, and a family survived by eating glue and crayons while stranded in the desert!  Wow!  And there were many more, including a ghost tale that I always read to my class on Halloween, A Girl Called Lavender.

Pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder pulled me in; we’d been introduced to them by my mother reading aloud an excerpt from Little House in the Big Woods when we were very small.  I believe it was from her own third grade reader which was printed soon after the first book came out (“To think – I’ve slapped a bear!”)  But to my class I always read Farmer Boy, in which Almanzo was the main character, because I think it was more of an accomplishment for Laura to write about her husband in his voice.  Her descriptions, especially of food and home, are unmatched in children’s litereature.  I read another Wisconsin pioneer story, Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, many times over, as I did one later called A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich.

The simplicity of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, and A Rose in Bloom stays with a reader forever, as does the relatively short tale of The Birds’ Christmas Carol, written at the turn of the century by Kate Douglas Wiggin.  That was always the last read-aloud I did before Christmas vacation.  My eyes weren’t the only ones that were misty by the time I was finished.

So – do you have a favorite book from childhood?  Share it in a comment!  Add to the list of books we love.