Jacob Riis and the Poor of New York: Reform in the Cities

Jacob Riis and the Poor of New York: Reform in the Cities
Helen Taft: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


The last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century were a period of great social ferment.  The so-called “Gilded Age,” named by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in a book by the same name, was a period of great disparity between the rich and the poor, and also, a time of great corruption in business and politics.  The excesses of the period were widely reported by a variety of writers and newspaper people, two of whom were Jacob Riis and  Lewis Hine.  Their photographs and writings—particularly about the lives of poor, largely immigrant children in New York City—stirred the hearts of many Americans and led, in part, to the reforms of the Progressive Era.


Students participating in this activity will gain experience in the use of primary sources, in this case the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to make hypotheses and gather evidence about the working lives of poor, largely immigrant children in the Gilded Age. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to books of Riis and Hines photographs Access to books about the Gilded Age


1.  After some preliminary discussion about the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era to provide background for the lesson, students should spend some time studying the materials about Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, becoming familiar with who they are and what they did to raise awareness about the lives of a segment of American immigrant children (See “Photography and Social Reform,” and “Jacob Riis,” websites, below).
2.  Students then should study the Riis and Hine photographs, paying particular attention to the photographs of children at work (“Photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” website below).
Individually or in small groups, and guided by the teacher, students should select one of the possibilities for working with a photograph as follows (these ideas are taken from the instructions for using primary sources on the Library of Congress, American Memory website, at http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/primary.html.

  • Use a historic photograph or film of a street scene. Give an oral description of the sights, sounds, and smells that surround the scene, presenting evidence from the photograph itself and other sources about the time period. Examine the image to find clues about the economics and commerce of the time.
  • Select a historical photograph or film frame. Predict what will happen one minute and one hour after the photograph or film was taken. Explain the reasoning behind your predictions.
  • To encourage focus on detail, show a photograph or film frame to the classroom for three minutes and then remove it. Have students draw the contents of the image on a piece of paper divided into a grid of nine sections. Repeat this exercise with new images and watch students' ability to recall detail improve. 

3.  Depending on the choice of activities, students should then be asked to pose hypotheses about the lives of these children, and about the society in which they lived.  If this part of the activity is done before reading about the era in their texts, it can make such reading a way of gathering evidence to support or reject their hypotheses.

4.  To complete the lesson, students can write a short essay on the hypotheses raised, or prepare a PowerPoint presentation that analyzes a photograph, raises a hypothesis, and presents evidence to support or reject the hypothesis.


Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended in a variety of ways. One such way is to use the “Gilded Age Webquest” cited below to involve students in a broad and deep study of the period.

Sources & Resources:

Photography and Social Reform 
Jacob Riis

Photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine 
 The Gilded Age WebQuest
This lesson plan was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.