The Life of Immigrant Children In New York
By the late nineteenth century the economic lines in America between the upper and lower class were quickly widening because of the boom of urban industrial expansion. Moreover, during the 1800s, America witnessed an influx of immigrants coming from many parts of the world, they made tenement houses in New York’s lower East Side a common destination. One person witnessing the living conditions of these tenements was journalist Jacob A. Riis. For several years, Riis, with camera in hand, tooked a multitude of photographs that depicted the atrocious working and living conditions in the New York slums. Riss reported that the tenements were severely overcrowded, unsanitary, and a breeding ground for crime and disease. Riss also claimed that the “slum” landlords of these tenements exploited immigrants by charging them more rent than they could afford. As a result, every member of the family had to work—even young children. Subsequently, in 1890, Riis wrote a book entitled: How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, which included his horrifying photographs and sketches, as means to expose to the middle class the chaotic environment of tenement living. Although Riss’s book exposes a myriad of social and economic problems regarding tenement housing, one of the more prominent ills his photographs and prose reveal is the harsh and distressing reality that immigrant families from the lower class must treat their children as a form of labor in order to survive. With this in mind, by describing and analyzing three of Riis’s photographs, I will demonstrate the validity of my argument which portrays the exploitation of child labor.
Most immigrant children from the tenements worked in either factories or tenement sweatshops under horrific conditions and worked the same hours as adults, which was twelve hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week. Riis’s photograph titled: Twelve-year-old boy (who had sworn he was sixteen) pulling threads in a sweat shop, about 1889” substantiates the poor working conditions that children were exposed to in tenement sweatshops in which Riss’s text asserts (99). Riis’s photograph depicts a young boy sewing a garment while he is sitting in a chair with a cushion. He is wearing a white cap and appears to wearing a pajama top possibly signifying he had to go straight to work not even allowing him time to get dressed. Next to the boy is a pile of garments to show the amount of work to be done. In the background of the photograph, five men are standing behind the boy all in a line. The photograph also reveals the unsanitary working conditions in tenement sweatshops that Riss’s text points out on numerous pages because the floor has shreds of dirty rags lying about, and it is filthy.
The boy is looking straight into the camera lens as if he is posing for a family portrait, but the expression of the boy’s face conveys gloom. The boy’s eyes appear to be...