Journalists for a New Era:
Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, etc.

By Page Smith, 1984

This is Part One of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Page Smith (1917-1995) is one of the most readable academic historians of recent years, author of many fine books, including the best biography of John Adams (1962), and, in the 1970s and ’80s, the excellent eight-volume “People’s History of the United States.”

The following excerpt describes the rise of reform-minded journalism in late 19th century America. In paragraphs two and three of this piece, Smith notes that the connective tissue of the U.S.A. is formed by words – newspaper and magazine articles, sermons, constitutional and legal debates, speeches, and so on. He is also, of course, describing the output of historians such as himself; he relies on the reader to make that particular connection. (See here for Carl Sandburg on America’s greatest speech.)

This volume of Smith’s U.S. history, as noted by its title, focuses on the late 19th century. See here for historian Barbara W. Tuchman on a crucial foreign policy shift in these years, and here for background on the pragmatist philosophers of the era. – H.F.


(The U.S. struggled in the late 1800s with industrialization, urbanization, urban graft, corporate greed, and a massive influx of immigrants. The most urgent question facing the nation) was how to check the accelerating slide into chaos, so evident in the cities, and once that was done, how to transform the city from a hell to a heaven. It was, as it turned out, to be done essentially as an act of imaginative compassion by men and women of a new order of clerisy who called themselves journalists.

I have argued in an earlier volume of this work that the United States, more than any other nation in history, was “talked into existence.” The debates in the convention in 1787 to frame the Constitution were the most remarkable example of sustained intellectual discourse in history. They were followed by the often equally brilliant debates in the thirteen different state conventions that met to ratify the newly drafted Constitution. Those debates defined the nature of the relationship of a people to the agencies of its government. In the national legislature the great debate continued, decade after decade, ringing the stops on the now familiar theme. In the chambers of the Supreme Court the most learned lawyers of the day exhausted their most impassioned eloquence on the subject, and Chief Justice John Marshall, in the decisions of “his” court, spelled out the more arcane meanings and implications of the Constitution. These were the bones of the body politic; the flesh was sermons, orations, political disquisitions, lectures, newspapers, and journals. One gropes for the proper analogy. Words were the nation’s tissue, its nervous system, the corpuscular blood circulating in its veins.

Decade after decade the words went on multiplying: explaining, justifying, exhorting, admonishing, defining, and redefining the essence of a people, a chaotic and disorderly nation having order imposed on it by words. By the last decades of the century the words, compounded by the new technology of printing, threatened to inundate the nation. As the crisis of the 1890s grew more and more acute, the words swelled to a vast torrent – confused, bitter, angry, prophetic words. As much as it was any other “age,” it was the age of journalism.

Frances Willard, who was by way of being a journalist herself, considered journalism the most promising career for a young man or woman. It, she declared in 1889, was a wide and challenging field, and, she added, “it will be a larger field to-morrow than it is today, and nine tenths of our literary aspirants, if they have the divine call of adaptation and enthusiasm, will enter there.” It was her conviction moreover, that it was an ideal field for women. “Newspapers,” she wrote, “need women more than women need newspapers. Fewer tobacco cobwebs in the air and brain and a less alcoholic ink are the prime necessities of the current newspaper.” Despite the sordidness of much of the daily press, she believed that “the journalistic temperament is almost the finest in the world – keen, kind, progressive, and humanitarian. Take away the hallucination of nicotine and the craze of alcoholic dreams, and you would have remaining an incomparable set of brother-hearted men, whose glimpses of God would be not at all infrequent. Anchor alongside these chivalric-natured experts, women as gifted as themselves, and free from drug delusions; then, in one quarter century, you will have driven pugilists and saloonkeepers, ward politicians and Jezebels from the sacred temple of journalism, and the people’s open letter from the great world shall be as pure as a letter from home.”

When Jacob Riis wavered in his determination to be a journalist, thinking his calling might be that of a preacher, his bishop told him, “No, no, Jacob, not that. We have preachers enough. What the world needs is consecrated pens.”

Young Ray Stannard Baker copied out of Thomas Carlyle’s “French Revolution” what was to become his own credo: “Great is journalism. Is not every Able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it; though self-elected, yet sanctioned by the sale of his Numbers? Whom indeed the world has the readiest method of deposing, should need to be: that of doing nothing to him: which ends in starvation.” Baker also cherished a line from “Leaves of Grass”: “For facts properly told, how mean appear all romances.” Trying years later to recapture the spirit of “exposure” journalism, Baker wrote that “we were ourselves personally astonished, personally ashamed, personally indignant at what we found, and we wrote earnestly, even hotly.”

While Whitman had called for inspired poets – “a divine literatus” – he had also perceived journalism as a “source of promises, perhaps fulfillments, of highest earnestness, reality, and life.”

What reporters and journalists had to make clear before they could awaken a general temper of reform in the readers of their journals was that the ignorance, poverty, crime, and vice for which the immigrants were so universally condemned were not genetic traits but the results of the conditions in which they lived and, above all, of their exploitation by rent-racking landlords and callous employers.

As Lincoln Steffens wrote later, when he and his fellow journalists began their “investigative reporting,” the “educated citizens of cities said, and I think they believed….that it was the ignorant foreign riff-raff of the big congested towns that made municipal politics so bad.” When Steffen’s expose′ of graft and corruption in St. Louis appeared, for example, the Boston Evening Transcript observed editorially that municipal corruption really had nothing to do with the ordinary Americans, “who were a highly moral and industrious people.” It was the doing of degraded immigrants. Steffens and his fellows destroyed that illusion.

It would be a serious mistake, of course, to suggest that the American press – newspapers as a whole – was an enthusiastic advocate of reform. The facts were otherwise. There were, to be sure, liberal newspapers, Democratic and Republican, and even a few radical ones, but the overwhelming majority of newspapers were, as we have noted before, dedicated upholders of the status quo. In response to a toast to “the independent press” at a meeting of the New York Press Association, John Swinton replied: “There is no such thing in America as an independent press unless it is in the country towns. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dare express an honest opinion. If you express it you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid $150 per week for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for doing similar things….The business of the New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and sell his country and race for his daily bread; or for what is about the same thing, his salary. You know this, and I know it; and what foolery to be toasting an ‘independent press.’ We are tools, and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping-jacks. They pull the strings and we dance. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, all are the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

One of the earliest and most influential of the reform journalists was Jacob Riis. Son of a Danish schoolteacher, Riis, trained as a carpenter, came to the United States in 1870 at the age of twenty to make his name in the world. He found it, as so many before and after, tough going. Motivated by “a strong belief that in a free country, free from the dominion of custom, of caste, as well as of men, things would somehow come right in the end,” he found a world very different from what he had imagined and for a time felt such despair that he contemplated suicide.

Since he had read in Denmark of the wild and woolly nature of America, his initial act was to buy himself a large pistol. His first job was building huts for miners at Brady’s Bend Iron Works on the Allegheny River. After that he tried mining but found it too exhausting and dangerous. Riis’s fortunes went from bad to worse. He pawned his pistol to buy food and then “joined the great army of tramps, wandering about the streets in the daytime with the one aim of somehow stilling the hunger that gnawed at my vitals, and fighting at night with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or door-way.” Too proud to beg, Riis often went hungry in the richest city in the world, subsisting for days on refuse from Delmonico’s restaurant. He roamed Mulberry Bend, already the center of a rapidly growing Italian population, and the notorious Five Points, the most crime-ridden section of the city, where no gentleman dared venture.

Prodded from a bench or doorway by a policeman’s billy, Riis sought in vain for work, sometimes spending unusually cold or rainy nights in the crowded, filthy sleeping quarters provided for the homeless at police stations. When he had a nickel, he paid to sleep with several dozen other men in a flophouse. Dirty and unkempt, he realized that he was too shabby to get work even if there had been work to get. A night in the Church Street police station proved the last straw. There he got into a fight with “a loudmouth German” about the Franco-Prussian War and had his last possession, a gold locket, stolen and his dog killed. He himself was thrown out of the police station when he complained. Furious and disconsolate, he exchanged the muck of New York for the mud of the open road and became for a time a tramp, riding freight trains, living in hobo enclaves, learning which towns to avoid. He found himself “on the great tramps’ highway, with the column moving south on its autumn hegira to warmer climes.”

Riis had little sympathy with the tramps, most of whom seemed to him shiftless, lazy fellows. Making his way to Philadelphia, where Danish friends lived, he subsisted on apples from orchards along the way.

In Philadelphia the Danish consul took young Riis in, provided him with new clothes and fresh hope, and sent him off to a fellow Dane in Jamestown, New York, where there was promise of work. He felled trees, worked in a furniture shop that failed, trapped muskrats and sold their pelts for twenty cents apiece, gave lectures on astronomy and geology in the evenings, worked as a hired hand on a farm, milking recalcitrant cows. He was employed as a cabinetmaker in a factory full of small, precarious enterprises. As part of his salary, he was allowed to live on the top floor of the building. Thrown out of work by the failure of the furniture company, Riis joined a crew to build a railroad bridge over a dry creek bed near Coonville in Cattaraugus County. He worked on a Lake Erie steamer and then as a traveling salesman of furniture, a patented flatiron, and, most ironic of all, a fancy edition of Dickens’s “Hard Times.” The times were as hard as the title; the country was in the throes of the Depression of 1873.

When Riis accumulated a modest capital, he took a course in telegraphy, but his money ran out before the completed his study. More and more the conviction grew that he must be a reporter, the highest and noblest of all callings. “No one could sift right from wrong as he, and punish the wrong,” he wrote. “The power of the fact is the mightiest lever of this or any other day.” Only by choosing that profession could he bring to the attention of the prosperous middle-and upper-class Americans the wretched and inhuman conditions in which the urban working class lived. “Someone had to tell the facts,” Riis wrote; “that is one reason why I became a reporter….I don’t care two pins for all the social theories that were ever made unless they help to make better men and women by bettering their lot.” Riis had no patience with those “social scientists” who told him that he was “doing harm rather than good by helping improve the lot of the poor; it delayed the final day of justice we were waiting for….Those are the fellows….who chill the enthusiasm of mankind with a deadly chill, and miscall its method science. The science of how not to do a thing….”

When an opportunity came to edit a paper designed to puff the political careers of two ambitious politicians, Riis seized it eagerly. “I was my own editor, reporter, publisher, and advertising agent,” he wrote. “My pen kept two printers busy all the week, and left me time to canvass for advertisements, attend meetings, and gather the news.” He collected the edition from the press and carried it onto the Fulton Street Ferry and then by trolley down Fifth Avenue to cajole newsboys to distribute it. He had also to fight off the “beats” who harassed him. When the politicians, elected to office, had no more use for the paper, they sold it to Riis on credit. He made such a success of the venture that he was able to pay off his indebtedness within a year, sell the paper for twice what he had paid for it, and depart for Denmark to marry his fiancée, for whose consent he had waited six years.

Back in New York with his bride, Riis got a job as a reporter for Charles Dana’s famous Sun, but he soon found it was impossible to live on a beginning reporter’s salary and once again he despaired of his future. Just when he was about to abandon his career as cub reporter, his city editor assigned him to the police beat in Mulberry Bend, the toughest section of the city. It was a grand prize for a young reporter, with a substantial increase in pay to $25 a week.

Riis, with his foreign accent, was much resented by the veteran police reporters from other newspapers assigned to the same post. To Riis it was, in a curious way, like coming home. He had known Mulberry Bend from the underside, lived there and despaired there, and now he was back to find his “lifework,” reporting on that strange and exotic world and trying with might and main to change it. Riis’s first target was the police station lodgings, such as the one on Church Street where he had been robbed and beaten not many years before – “dens” he called them. “I resolved to wipe them out, bodily, if God gave me health and strength,” Riis wrote. It took ten years and the support of the new police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Riis’s other cause soon presented itself to him – the dangerous and unhealthy condition of the buildings, the tenements, in which masses of immigrants lived. The churches had started the campaign against the tenements and their owners, and after five years of agitation by reformers, there was formed the Tenement House Commission, “which first brought home” to the general public “the fact that the people living in the tenements were ‘better than the houses.′ That was a big milestone on a dreary road,” Riis wrote. “From that time on we heard of ‘souls’ in the slum.”

At first there was considerable resistance to Riis and his message. People simply did not want to hear it, especially the part that laid the blame at the door of respectable owners of tenements and demanded action to remedy the evils. He found the doors of his own church closed to him, and those of many others as well. He had to rent a theater for his lectures, illustrated with slides. Josiah Strong supported him. Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church opened its doors, and the reform minister Dr. Charles Parkhurst welcomed him as an ally.

Riis recalled an interdenominational meeting of ministers “who were concerned about the losing fight the church was waging among the masses” at which a man stood up and called out, “How are these men and women to understand the love of God you speak of, when they see only the greed of men?” Decent housing could be built for poor people, he declared, if builders were willing to take 7 percent and save their souls rather than 25 percent and lose them. Thinking of the speaker’s challenge, Riis wrote down the title of a book he would write, “How the Other Half Lives,” and copyrighted it. He was equally impressed by Dr. Parkhurst’s eloquence. Parkhurst told the ministerial assemblage, “We have got to give not our old clothes, not our prayers. Those are cheap. You can kneel down on a carpet and pray where it is warm and comfortable. Not our soup – this is sometimes very cheap. Not our money – a stingy man will give money when he refuses to give himself. Just as soon as a man feels that you sit down alongside of him in loving sympathy with him, notwithstanding his poor, notwithstanding his sick and debased state, just so you begin to worm your way into the very warmest spot in his life.”

Riis’s editors tolerated his obsession in part because it sold newspapers. The Grand Jury on its tours observed the conditions that Riis reported so graphically. “The City Hall felt the sting and squirmed.” Riis, in the face of the massive immobility of the city’s officials, persevered year after year. The public “simply needed to know, I felt sure of that….But it takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong.” When nothing seemed to budge, Riis watched a stonecutter hammering away at his rock; he thought of the story of Joshua’s seven-time march around the walls of Jericho before they fell. In New York City it took almost twice seven years before the walls of Mulberry Bend fell and a park replaced a portion of that slum – fourteen years and Teddy Roosevelt and the good government club boys and a reform mayor. In the meantime, Jacob Riis’s remarkable energy never flagged or wavered.

“We used to go in the small hours of the morning into the worst tenements to count noses and see if the law against overcrowding was violated and the sights I saw there,” Riis wrote, “gripped my heart until I felt that I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist….”