Scope and arrangement
The Jacob Riis papers consist of correspondence, diaries, lecture notes, holograph manuscripts, clippings, miscellaneous printed materials, and photographs. They span the years 1871-1916 and include Riis’s own papers as well as correspondence of the Phillips family, much of it addressed to Mary Phillips, Riis’s second wife. The correspondence includes family letters, business letters regarding Riis’s work, publications and lecture tours and letters relating to farm matters.
Most of the early letters to Riis are in Danish, and many are written from his native Ribe. Letters Riis received in 1905 relate for the most part to the illness and subsequent death of his first wife, Elisabeth Nielson. Elisabeth had become well known to the American public after the publication of The Making of an American (1901), in which she played an important role. The letters and notes of sympathy include many from people who did not know Riis personally, as well as those from prominent persons, including several cablegrams from Theodore Roosevelt. Additional correspondence received in 2011 consists of business and personal letters written and received throughout his career up until his death in 1914. Much of this correspondence is with two life-long friends, Dr. Roger S. Tracy and Lillian Wald, and often includes analysis of local and national politics. Letters relating to the publication of The Making of an American are also present.
Phillips family letters contain correspondence between Mary and her parents (Mr. and Mrs. R.F. Phillips), and sister, Carol, from her school days through the period of her marriage to Jacob Riis. These letters, which date from 1892 to 1916, generally discuss children, fashion, family relationships, schooling, and social activities.
Riis’s pocket diaries for the years 1871 through 1875 were written almost exclusively in Danish and document his early years in the United States and his search for employment. One English entry in August of 1875 records Riis’s purchase of the South Brooklyn News for six hundred dollars. Six memorandum books kept by Riis from 1882 to1902 include research notes, lecture schedules, business and personal expenses, and travel notes from a trip to England in 1893. Lecture notes for the years 1896 to 1911 are included for speeches on housing, organized charity, and for the opening of Seward Park in 1903.
The five holograph manuscripts in the collection represent some of Riis’s major works: How the Other Half Lives, The Children of the Poor, The Making of an American, Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen, and The Old Town.
Miscellaneous papers include newspaper clippings, published articles by Riis, pamphlets, brochures, notebooks, and several Danish manuscripts. Subjects addressed in these materials include day care, schools, reformatories, asylums, good government clubs, and Christmas seals. A typescript version of the epilogue for a 1970 edition of The Making of an American is also present. Written by J. Riis Owre (Jacob Riis’s grandson), it is an interesting and warmly written biographical sketch which quotes extensively from Riis’s letters in the Library of Congress.
Photographs include scenes of Denmark, family pictures, individual portraits, and one portrait of Jacob Riis. The photographs are, for the most part, unidentified and only one (of his son Roger William Riis) is attributed to Riis.