Much against his father’s wishes of taking up a literary career, he longed to become a carpenter. By the time he turned sixteen, he started working as an intern in Carpentry Company. He moved to Copenhagen to complete his training.
Returning to Ribe in 1868, he was disheartened to see the lack of opportunity for work and hence migrated to United States in 1870, with a letter of reference to the Danish Consul, Mr Goodall.
It was only on the fifth day upon his arrival that he found work as a carpenter at Brady’s Bend Iron Works on the Allegheny River above Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the world scenario kept changing as France declared war against Germany.
With a view to contribute to the war, he moved to New York and enlisted himself at the French consulate. However, since America had no plans of sending a volunteer army, he dropped the idea.
He moved to Little Washington in New Jersey and started working at the brickyard. It was while working there that he heard about a group of volunteers who were going for the war. He moved to New York immediately but was too late
After days and months of struggle during which he had no work, shelter or food, he left New York and moved to Philadelphia. Under the care of the Danish Consul, Ferdinand Myhlertz, he revived his state of living.
He eventually found work as a carpenter in Scandinavian communities in the western part of the state. He gained fame as a carpenter due to quality work and low prices but was exploited by the employers.
Meanwhile, he attempted to make a career as a writer and started writing in both Danish and English. He even tried to get a job at Buffalo, a New York newspaper but was unsuccessful.
Frustrated by the exploitation, he returned to New York wherein he started working as a salesman, engaged in selling flatirons and fluting irons. No sooner he was promoted to the rank of a sales representative.
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Meanwhile, he continued to make efforts to bag a journalism job which he eventually did after being appointed as a trainee in the New York News Association. His competency and working skills earned him the position of an editor for a weekly newspaper News.
After the newspaper became bankrupt, he, instead of finding yet another job, bought the company and worked hard to revive the newspaper out of the financial crisis.
Due to events occurring in his personal life, he sold off the newspaper at a far-stretching profit and moved to Denmark to marry his childhood sweetheart. Returning to New York, he started off as an editor of a south Brooklyn newspaper, the Brooklyn News.
He was then offered the job of a police reporter at the New York Tribune. In the position, he worked in the impoverished slums and crime ridden areas of the city. It was the awful state of living of the poor and the penurious that inspired him to work for the social cause.
He changed his writing style completely, infusing a terse and more melodramatic approach to the subjects, thus becoming one of the earliest reformist journalists of the time.
Meanwhile, the world of photography experienced a major technological boom with the introduction of flashlight, a German technology that allowed a photographer to take pictures in the dark.
Using the powerful device, he along with his three other friends used the device to photograph pictures of the dark slum areas. He then submitted a report of the same which was published in the newspaper, The Sun on the February 12, 1888 issue. With this, he became one of the first Americans to employ flash light.
For the next three years, he employed his own photographs and that of other commissioned photographers to write various articles. He then used the device to cover the poverty laden, crime stricken impoverished zones of Mulberry Street, depicting the harsh life of the slum areas and those faced by the poor and the criminals.
Accumulating the supply of photographs he then complied to form an illustrated essay. Though he submitted the same to the Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, his write-up was rejected. It was then that he gave public speaking a serious thought.
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His first public speaking event was organized at the Broadway Tabernacle Church and sponsored by Adolph Schauffler. Assisted by lantern slides, the public speaking event was a major hit. No sooner the number of people exposed to his speeches increased by manifold.
Eventually, he was invited by the editor of Scribner's Magazine, to submit an illustrated article. In the 1889 Christmas edition, he submitted an eighteen page article by the title, ‘How the Other Half Lives’. The article included nineteen photographs and line drawings.
The success of the publication of the article led to an increasing demand for a full-fledged version of the same. To enliven his long-lost dream of writing a book, he quickly accepted the offer.
While he continued working as a reporter for the New York Sun during the day, the evenings were secured for public speaking. As such, he was only left with the night to work at the book.
In 1890, he finally came up with the book, ‘How The Other Half Lives – Studies Among the Tenements of New York’. The book contained the eighteen line drawings that had appeared in the Scribner's article and also seventeen reproductions using the halftone method. It was received with much success and appreciated by the readers.
Two years later, he came up with a sequel, ‘Children of the Poor’, which provided a detailed account of the life of the children that he had encountered in the slum areas and poverty zones.
He continued to serve as a reporter and author in the coming years. While his articles in the newspaper highlighted the harsh realities of the society and the corruption and the crime, his books offered a detailed account of the on-going battle with life in the shantytowns of the big cities.
It was during this time that he befriended Theodore Roosevelt who was all praises for the acute finesse and work of this activist reporter and photographer. The relationship lasted until Roosevelt’s appointment as the President and after that as well.
In 1901, he penned his autobiography, titled ‘The Making of an American’. Thereafter, he came up with a number of works including, ‘The Battle with the Slum’, ‘Children of the Tenements’, ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’, ‘Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen’, ‘The Old Town’, ‘Hero Tales of the Far North’, ‘Neighbors: Life Stories of the Other Half’
Personal Life & Legacy
It was at the age of sixteen that he first fell in love with Elisabeth Gj�rtz, the 12-year-old adopted daughter of the owner of the company for which he worked as an apprentice carpenter.
He proposed her several times during his life, but each time she rejected his offer. Finally, it was after the death of her fianc�e that she accepted his offer for marriage.
The two married in Denmark and later moved to New York. They were blessed with three children, a daughter, Clara C. Riis and two sons John Riis and Edward V. Riis.
In 1905, tragedy struck him in the personal front as his wife, Elisabeth, fell ill and died. Two years later he tied the nuptial knot again with Mary Phillips and relocated with her to a farm in Barre, Massachusetts.
He breathed his last on May 26, 1914 and was survived by his wife and children.
Posthumously, he was honoured, together with Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA).
Several parks, educational institutions, playgrounds and districts have been named after him.