Documenting "The Other Half": The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
Photography and Social ReformJacob RiisLewis HineSlideshows

Photography and Social Reform

Gilded Age Reform

Gilded Age Reform

Progressive Era Reform

America's Gilded Age was a period of intense economic and social change. During the years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, Americans closed the frontier, shed their agrarian roots, and embraced new technologies.


Class and Industry
The shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy brought new patterns of production and created a new class structure. Factory assembly lines replaced apprentice workshops. Machines replaced skilled craftsmen. A new working class of semi-skilled wage laborers operated the machinery. By 1900, the industrial workforce comprised one third of the population.
[1]

The upper-class entrepreneurs who controlled American industries and the middle-class managers who supported them formed "one half" of Gilded Age society. These businessmen promoted the doctrine of free labor as the symbol of American democracy. Using themselves as examples, they argued that Americans could achieve success through hard work. They built mansions for their families and donated funds for parks and public architecture to display their newfound wealth and social power.

Immigrants, Ellis Island
Climbing into America,
Ellis Island, New York

"The other half" of Gilded Age society consisted of working-class families. One out of every three laborers was an immigrant. [2] Lured by the promises of freedom and opportunity, motivated by the desire to escape oppressive living and working conditions at home, many immigrants sold their possessions and moved to America. Too often, however, they found themselves in similar situations in this country.

About 40 percent of working-class citizens lived below the poverty line of $500 per year. [3] They faced long hours, low pay, random wage cuts, periods of high unemployment, danger to life and limb on the job, lack of insurance, and lack of worker's compensation. The overcrowded tenements in which they lived often had inadequate sewage, heat, water, and electricity.


Helping "the Other Half"
The squalor of the working-class neighborhoods contrasted sharply with those of the middle and upper classes. The working-class home was the center of production; many men, women, and children labored in tenement sweatshops. Middle-class and

upper-class homes were centers of consumption; men acquired art, women arranged banquets, children read books or played with toys. Working-class neighborhoods were often overcrowded. In contrast, middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods were clean and spacious.

Coal-Heaver's Home
In Poverty Gap,
an English Coal-Heaver's Home

The native customs of working-class immigrants seemed foreign to middle-class and upper-class citizens. Their neighborhoods seemed mysterious and dangerous. The media reinforced the stereotype of working-class citizens as "other," portraying them as immoral, ignorant, or unable to help themselves.

Gilded Age reformers appealed to the consciences and fears of these citizens, encouraging them to serve as guardians of the poor and protect themselves against crime.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003