Scholarly series lecture looks at ‘How the Other Half Lives’

In the 1880s and 1890s, Wilton experienced a “modest increase” in its immigrant population, according to Robert H. Russell’s Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places and Progress.
Gilbert & Bennett Manufacturing recruited immigrants from Sweden and Finland to work at its Georgetown mill and factory in the 1880s.
“They found them to be careful and reliable workers and they sent recruiters to the docks in New York City,” Mr. Russell wrote. “As word got back to their friends in the home country, more came over.”

Wilton wasn’t the only place to experience an increase in its foreign-born population — the entire nation did.
“There was an enormous influx of immigrants at the time because the economy was booming,” said art historian and independent curator Bonnie Yochelson, who will lead this year’s fourth scholarly series lecture at Wilton Library on Sunday, March 8.
However, the nation’s booming economy put more money in some people’s pockets than in others’. While “some people were getting very rich,” said Ms. Yochelson, “other people were getting the short end of the stick.”
Ms. Yochelson’s scholarly series lecture will focus on Jacob A. Riis, a Danish-born social reformer and photojournalist whose best-selling book How the Other Half Lives (1890) brought public attention to the squalid living conditions of New York’s poor.
Ms. Yochelson is a former curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York — home to the Jacob A. Riis Collection of Photographs, which depict New York’s “squalid housing, sweatshops, bars and alleys” in the late 19th Century.

Jacob A. Riis

Before he was known as a social reformer, Mr. Riis worked as a daily crime reporter in New York.
“He was reporting on things like burglaries and murders and suicides and things like that,” said Ms. Yochelson, “and he became very, very familiar with the lives of the poor in New York.”

After many years of reporting in the city, Ms. Yochelson said, Mr. Riis asked himself what he could do to help the city’s poorer citizens.
“A couple of things made a huge difference — one was he changed from a day shift to a night shift,” said Ms. Yochelson, “which allowed him to have more time to think and learn what kind of [resources] might be available to [expose] the conditions and what had been happening in the city.”
The second thing, she said, was Mr. Riis’s discovery of photography.
“In 1897, he read in the newspaper about the invention of flashbulb photography,” said Ms. Yochelson, “which set off a burst of light at the time of exposure so that you could photograph things in the dark.”
At first, Mr. Riis did not use a camera himself, said Ms. Yochelson. Instead, he enlisted amateur photographers to come with him to locations and photograph whatever he asked them to.
“During those night raids, they would go photograph some of the terrible conditions that existed,” said Ms. Yochelson.

How the Other Half Lives

In 1888, Ms. Yochelson said, Mr. Riis used those photos to create an illustrated lecture and presented it to audiences in the New York area.
“He was then given the opportunity to write an article based on the lecture for a national magazine, and then based on that, he wrote a book, that was published in 1890, called How the Other Half Lives ,” said Ms. Yochelson.
“That book became a national best seller and that was what established his career as a social reformer as opposed to just a newspaper writer.”
Ms. Yochelson said Mr. Riis’s “genius” lay in his ability to publicize issues and touch the hearts and minds of people.

“He was such a passionate speaker and he was such a good storyteller. He managed to take a subject that people really didn’t want to confront and addressed it in a way that was sort of exciting and entertaining,” she said.
“Without being over-moralizing, he managed to give a good show … and capture people’s interests and bring their attention to something they otherwise might prefer not to think about.”
Mr. Riis spent the next 10 years working on social reform, said Ms. Yochelson.
“He helped with a lot of very practical changes in New York and then gave lectures and wrote about them for a national audience,” she said.
“He would show pictures to explain the problems of urban poverty and presented some solutions.”
Ms. Yochelson said people who attend her upcoming lecture will learn that many of the problems that exist today are similar, if not the same, as those faced during the Gilded Age.
“Immigration, the importance of education, crime rate, and figuring out how to go about correcting some of these problems, who is responsible, should we all care, should everyone be involved — all those problems we see today are all the problems that Jacob Riis was addressing,” said Ms. Yochelson.
“For me, these parallels and comparisons are striking. We have entered another Gilded Age, with enormous disparities between rich and poor, which was very much the situation 100 years ago.”
In addition to preparing a complete catalog of Mr. Riis’s photograph collection, Ms. Yochelson is organizing an accompanying exhibition with the Library of Congress, which holds the Jacob A. Riis papers — correspondence, diaries, lecture notes, holograph manuscripts, clippings, photographs, and miscellaneous printed materials.
“Coming up on this major public presentation of new research and the catalog,” she said, “it’s very timely to be giving this lecture about Jacob Riis.”
Ms. Yochelson’s “How the Other Half Lives” lecture will begin at 4 p.m. There is no fee, but registration is essential.
To register, visit or call 203-763-3950, ext. 213.