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Jacob A. Riis: Denmark’s most influential emigrant

Culture and recreation

Jacob A. Riis in his heyday in New York circa 1900. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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Very few Danes know of Jacob A. Riis. But in the United States, the man, who was close friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, is considered one of the most influential figures in American history. A new museum in Ribe, Denmark, aims to create more awareness about the Danish crime reporter and social reformer, who traveled from Ribe USA in 1870

In 1870, the 21-year-old apprentice carpenter embarked on a journey from his hometown of Ribe with only 40 dollars in his pocket.  Three weeks later, on June 5, he reached the port of New York. For the next 40 years, he became one of America’s most famous and recognized men in America. In spite of that, the man, who was close friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, who called him “the ideal American,” is practically unknown in Denmark.

That is about to change on June 29, when the Museum of Southwest Jutland opens the new Jacob A. Riis Museum in central Ribe – in the beautiful 16th-century city block of Quedens Gaard belonging to the Museum of Southwest Jutland. Here, Danish and international visitors will get an insight into the life of the prominent Danish-American from Ribe and his fascinating story.

A prominent figure in American history

An unrequited and one-sided love affair with a rich man’s daughter, Elisabeth, made Jacob A. Riis set out for the Land of Opportunity. While others at that time tried their luck and headed to Esbjerg, where a new port was being built, or to Copenhagen, where Jacob A. Riis himself had trained as a carpenter, the young man from Ribe felt the urge to go even further away.

”I scrub,” Katie answered when asked what she was doing. 9-year-old Katie lived with her three older siblings. The mother had passed away, and the children had moved out when the father remarried. Katie was in charge of the household's cooking and cleaning. Photo: Museum of the City of New York.

The man had slept in the basement with three others for three years. The bed consisted of a mattress laid on top of two planks, which had been placed across two water barrels. The floor was never dry, and Riis noted that not even ”the tiniest ray of sunlight could find its way down there.”. Photo: Museum of the City of New York.

He found his way to New York, where he worked as a journalist and crime reporter in the slums of the Lower East Side, which, at that time, was the most densely populated area in the world. Here, he saw – and documented at first sight – the negative effects of the industrial revolution. Instead of merely writing about child labor, miserable housing conditions, inadequate water supply, corruption, and crime, he, as one of the first, supplemented his numerous hard-hitting articles with photography that he took in dingy apartments, shady taverns, and overpopulated lodgings and workplaces, portraying the brutal reality.

– When the flash was invented, it became possible to shoot in the dark. In 1887, Jacob A. Riis was among the first to use flash as a way to tie the power of the word with photographic evidence – to emphasize his points. It was the use of flash, which made him a pioneer, and what makes him relevant even today. He was a social reformer, who, with the image as a medium, was able to put the miserable living condition of poor immigrants on the agenda and address the need for social reforms, explains Flemming Just, Director of Museum of Southwest Jutland, as he talks about the life of this Dane, who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the United States:

– From around 1890 and until the end of World War I in 1918, an acknowledgement of the need for regulation of living conditions, child labor, health and working conditions, spread. With his book “How the Other Half Lives,” Jacob A. Riis became one of the most renowned social reformers of this time. An American historian has since emphasized the book as one of five to six books that have contributed the most to creating social change in America, Mr. Just explains.

– In many ways, Jacob A. Riis is the pride of Ribe – even though the Danes do not know him that well, yet. That is why it was an obvious choice to create a museum about him in his childhood home. However, it will not be a “memorial house” filled with artifacts that belonged to him. Instead, it will be a museum communicating why he made a difference and the reason why he is still relevant today – how his thoughts can be adapted to today’s society. As a visitor, you will also get an insight into the City of New York in the late 19th century, and in one of the museum’s back alleys, we are creating a New York environment as of 1890. We will also zoom in on Ribe at the time when Jacob A. Riis left – and the role that Ribe played in the idea of reforms that he brought with him to the United States. Finally, the museum also depicts his love story, which would be great material for a Hollywood blockbuster, says Flemming Just about the relationship between Jacob A. Riis and his sweetheart. In the end, against all odds, he ended up marrying his Elisabeth, and in 1901, the couple celebrated their silver anniversary in their American family home.

An insight into New York in the 1800s

The new museum in Quedens Gaard is a part of a larger development project, which will also include an international museum about witches opening in 2020, as well as a third, new museum, whose theme is yet to be announced. Although the Jacob A. Riis Museum will actually be located in his childhood home, visitors should not expect to step into a true copy of a typical family home in Ribe in the 1800s.

Jacob A. Riis Museum

The image ”Bandits’ Roost” embodies the underworld of New York in the 19th century. The image was recreated on screen by film director Martin Scorcese as a scene in the movie ”Gangs of New York” from 2002.

To Riis, the basement room was like being buried alive: Father, mother, and two children huddled together with a bed, a stove, a pram, and an old table. The air was so heavy, the windows were dripping with water.

PHOTO: JACOB A. RIIS/MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK.

Museum of the City of New York

A photographic collection still highly relevant

The Danish-American reporter passed away in 1914 and seemed to be forgotten for many years, as the United States entered World War I and World War II, and other societal challenges drew greater focus. However, in the 1970s, the interest in Jacob A. Riis was revived, when discussions on poor housing conditions, slums, and city planning resurfaced on the political agenda. At the same time, a book about his photography was published. The fact that the Museum of Southwest Jutland is now dedicating an entire museum to the, until now, unknown Dane, is a more than 10-year-old dream coming true for the Museum Director.

– Today, Jacob A. Riis is considered one of the pioneers of photojournalism. At the same time, many of the themes that he cared about in his time are highly relevant today. He was very occupied with the discussions about immigration and inequality, just as there are several directly comparable past and present aspects of the deliberations about city planning and public healthcare. That is why, his accounts and photographs are relevant even today, and we are looking forward to sharing them with Danish as well as international visitors, says Flemming Just.

Practical information

The Jacob A. Riis Museum will be inaugurated on Thursday, June 27, by HRH Princess Benedikte of Denmark. The museum will open to the public on Saturday, June 29. The museum has received more than DKK 18 million in contributions from foundations for exhibitions and films.

Currently, a documentary film about Jacob A. Riis is being filmed. The film will be broadcast on DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) next year and will be sold to international markets afterward.

Jacob A. Riis Museum is a part of the Museum of Southwest Jutland, a state-recognized cultural history museum in Esbjerg Municipality, which has a large number of exhibition sites as well as archeological responsibilities in Esbjerg, Fanø, Vejen, and Billund Municipality.