Book Review: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

How the Other Half Lives

It’s been a while since I’ve read a nonfiction book. This one I was assigned to read in my history class (which is also my favorite class this semester), so I didn’t exactly read it by choice. I’ve also never heard of it, so I’m glad I had a chance to read it. Riis was a journalist and social activist who wanted to bring awareness to the horrible poverty filling the tenement buildings (pretty much apartment buildings) in New York City. And so he wrote this book. And while I read it for school, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. If I ever write a book set during this era and place, I am definitely using this book as reference.

Release: 1890

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) “First published in 1890, Jacob Riis’s remarkable study of the horrendous living conditions of the poor in New York City had an immediate and extraordinary impact on society, inspiring reforms that affected the lives of millions of people.”


Just like Nellie Bly’s book Ten Days in a Mad-House was supposed to show the horrible conditions in Blackwell’s Asylum, this book takes a step off that island and back to New York City, where the poor lived in horrifying conditions. Even reading it in the modern day, it hard to imagine how horrible those people’s lives must have been. Often they would work inside tiny, dark, hot rooms for seventeen hours a day. The landlords wouldn’t fix anything, toilets were outside (five toilets may be shared between a hundred or more people), and dirt and grime was everywhere.

This book is definitely a pretty dark read, and it is good to know that it’s existence and work of people like Riis brought awareness to the situation and ended up changing the city for the better, even if it did take a while.

Each chapter focuses on a different area or topic in the city, like certain gangs which roamed the city, how children survived (mostly as thieves…or they just died), or the areas where mostly Italians, Chinese, or Blacks lived. It’s a dense book, and certainly one that doesn’t shy away from violence or horrors in NYC at the time.

I am well aware that, to be honest, this book isn’t extremely relevant. Yes, there are still issues with poverty in America, but there are a lot of both government and charity safety nets for people in need which didn’t exist over a hundred and thirty years ago. However, I do think it is important to appreciate the life we have and understand how life has changed in over a century.

I certainly appreciate my life after reading this book. I sometimes feel bad that I can’t afford Starbucks often, or I have to save to pay for college, and then I think of these people. They were starving, they couldn’t read or write, most of the children died young and those who didn’t often became street thieves. Cleanliness didn’t exist. Often women weren’t paid as much and blacks were charged more for everything than whites. It’s just reading this book made me realize all the things I have that it’s easy to take for granted. Like the ability to take a hot shower or just go into my kitchen to get something to eat when I’m hungry.

Have you read this book? Or heard of it? Is there a book that really gave you a perspective on how lucky you are? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Anne from Madame Writer

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