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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.


Early Married Life; I become an Advertising Bureau; on the “Tribune”

IT was no easy life to which I brought home my young wife. I felt it often with a secret pang when I thought how few friends I had to offer her for those she had left, and how very different was the whole setting of her new home. At such times I set my teeth hard and promised myself that some day she should have the best in the land. She never with word or look betrayed if she, too, felt the pang. We were comrades for better or worse from the day she put her hand in mine, and never was there a more loyal and faithful one. If, when in the twilight she played softly to herself the old airs from home, the tune was smothered in a sob that was not for my ear, and shortly our kitchen resounded with the most tremendously energetic housekeeping on record, I did not hear. I had drunk that cup to the dregs, and I knew. I just put on a gingham apron and turned in to help her. Two can battle with a fit of homesickness much better than one, even if never a word is said about it. And it can very rarely resist a man with an apron on. I suppose he looks too ridiculous.

Besides, housekeeping in double harness was a vastly different matter from going it single. Not that it was plain sailing by any manner of means. Neither of us knew anything about it; but we were there to find out, and exploring together was fine fun. We started fair by laying in a stock of everything there was in the cook-book and in the grocery, from “mace,” which neither of us knew what was, to the prunes which we never got a chance to cook because we ate them all up together before we could find a place where they fitted in. The deep councils we held over the disposal of those things, and the strange results which followed sometimes! Certain rocks we were able to steer clear of, because I had carefully charted them in the days of my bachelorhood. In the matter of sago, for instance, which swells so when cooked. You would never believe it. But there were plenty of unknown reefs. I mind our first chicken. I cannot to this day imagine what was the matter with that strange bird. I was compelled to be at the office that afternoon, but I sent my grinning “devil” up to the house every half-hour for bulletins as to how it was getting on. When I came home in the gloaming, it was sizzling yet, and my wife was regarding it with a strained look and with cheeks which the fire had dyed a most lovely red. I can see her now. She was just too charming for anything. With the chicken something was wrong. As I said, I don’t know what it was, and I don’t care. The skin was all drawn tight over the bones like the covering on an umbrella frame, and there was no end of fat in the pan that we didn’t know what to do with. But our supper of bread and cheese that night was a meal fit for a king. My mother, who was a notable cook, never made one so fine. It is all stuff about mothers doing those things better. Who cares, anyhow? Have mothers curls of gold and long eyelashes, and have they arch ways? And do they pout, and have pet names? Well, then, are not these of the very essence of cookery, all the dry books to the contrary notwithstanding? Some day some one will publish a real cook-book for young housekeepers, but it will be a wise husband with the proper sense of things, not a motherly person at all, who will write it. They make things that are good enough to eat, but that is not the best part of cooking by long odds.

There is one housekeeping feat of which Elisabeth says she is ashamed yet. I am not. I’ll bet it was fine. It was that cake we took so much trouble with. The yeast went in all right, but something else went wrong. It was not put to soak, or to sizzle, in the oven, or whatever it was. Like my single-blessed pancake, it did not rise, and in the darkness before I came home she smuggled it out of the house; only to behold, with a mortification that endures to this day, the neighbor-woman who had taken such an interest in our young housekeeping, examining it carefully in the ash-barrel next morning. People are curious. But they were welcome to all they could spy out concerning our household. They discovered there, if they looked right, the sweetest and altogether the bravest little housekeeper in all the world. And what does a cake matter, or a hen, or twenty, when only the housekeeper is right?

In my editorial enthusiasm for the new plan there was no doubtful note. The “beats” got a rest for a season while I transferred my attention to the boarding-house. My wife teases me yet with those mighty onslaughts on the new enemy. Having clearly made him out by the light of our evening lamp, I went for him with might and main, determined to leave no boarding-house through the length and breadth of the land, or at least of South Brooklyn. “Ours,” I cried, weekly “to fulfil its destiny, must be a nation of homes. Down with the boarding-house!” and the politicians applauded. They were glad to be let alone. So were the beats who were behind in their bills, and whose champion I had unexpectedly become. A doughty champion, too, a walking advertisement of my own prescription; for I grew fat and strong, whereas I had been lean and poor. I was happy, that was it; very, very happy, and full of faith in our ability to fight our way through, come what might. Nor did it require the gift of a prophet to make out that trying days were coming; for my position, again as the paid editor of my once “owners,” the politicians, was rapidly becoming untenable. It was an agreement entered into temporarily. When it should lapse, what then? I had pledged myself when I sold the paper not to start another for ten years in South Brooklyn. So I would have to begin life over again in a new place. I gave the matter but little thought. I suppose the old folks, viewing it all from over there, thought it trifling with fate. It was not. It was a trumpet challenge to it to come on, all that could crowd in. Two, we would beat the world.

Before I record the onset that ensued, I must stop to tell of another fight, one which in my soul I regret, though it makes me laugh even now. Nonresistance never appealed to me except in the evildoer who has been knocked down for cause. I suppose it is wicked, but I promised to tell the truth, and—I always did like Peter for knocking off the ear of the high priest’s servant. If only it had been the high priest’s own ear! And so when the Rev. Mr.—no, I will not mention names; he was Brother Simmons’s successor, that is what grieves me—when he found fault with the News for being on sale Sundays, if I remember rightly, and preached about it, announcing that “never in the most anxious days of the war had he looked in a newspaper on the Sabbath”; and when ill luck would have it that on the same Sunday I beheld his Reverence, who was a choleric man, hotly stoning a neighbor’s hen from his garden, I drew editorial parallels which were not soothing to the reverend temper. What really ailed Mr.—was that he was lacking in common sense, or he would never have called upon me with his whole board of deacons in the quiet of the Sunday noon, right after church, to demand a retraction. I have no hope that a sense of the humor of the thing found its way into the clerical consciousness when I replied that I never in the most exciting times transacted business on Sunday; for if it had, we would have been friends for life. But I know that it “struck in” in the case of the deacons. They went out struggling with their mirth behind their pastor’s back. I think he restrained himself with difficulty from pronouncing the major excommunication against me, with bell, book, and candle, then and there.

About that time I saw advertised for sale a stereopticon outfit, and bought it without any definite idea of what to do with it. I suppose it ought to be set down as foolishness and a waste of money. And yet it was to play an important part in the real lifework that was waiting for me. Without the knowledge which the possession of it gave me, that work could not have been carried out as it was. That is not to say that I recommend every man to have a magic lantern in his cellar, or the promiscuous purchase of all sorts of useless things as though the world were a kind of providential rummage sale. I should rather say that no effort to in any way add to one’s stock of knowledge is likely to come amiss in this world of changes and emergencies, and that Providence has a way of ranging itself on the side of the man with the strongest battalions of resources when the emergency does come. In other words, that to “trust God and keep your powder dry” is the plan for all time.

The process of keeping mine dry came near blowing up the house. My two friends, Mackellar and Wells, took a sympathetic interest in the lantern proceedings, which was well, because, being a druggist, Wells knew about making the gas and could prevent trouble on that tack. It was before the day of charged tanks. The gas we made was contained in wedge-shaped rubber bags, in a frame with weights on top that gave the necessary pressure. Mackellar volunteered to be the weight, and sat on the bags, at our first séance, while Wells superintended the gas and I read the written directions. We were getting along nicely when I came to a place enjoining great caution in the distribution of the weight. “You are working,” read the text, “with two gases which, if allowed to mix in undue proportion, have the force and all the destructive power of a bombshell.” Mackellar, all ear, from fidgeting fell into a tremble on his perch. He had not dreamed of this; neither had we. I steadied him with an imperative gesture.

“Sit still,” I commanded. “Listen! ‘If, by any wabbling of the rack, the pressure were to be suddenly relieved, the gas from one bag might be sucked into the other, with the result of a disastrous explosion.’”

We stood regarding each other in dumb horror. Mackellar was deathly pale.

“Let me off, boys,” he pleaded faintly. “I’ve got to go to the station to turn out the men.” He made a motion to climb down.

Wells had snatched the book from me. “Jack! for your life don’t move!” he cried, and pointed to the next paragraph in the directions:—

“Such a thing has happened when the frame has been upset, or the weight in some other way suddenly shifted.”

Mac sat as if frozen to stone. Ed and I sneaked out of the back door on tiptoe to make for down-stairs, three steps at a time. In less time than it takes to tell it we were back, each with an armful of paving-stones, which we piled up beside our agonized comrade, assuring him volubly that there was no danger if he would only sit still, still as a mouse, till we came back. Then we were off again. The third trip gave us stones enough, and with infinite care we piled them, one after another, upon the rack as the Captain eased up, until at last he stood upon the floor, a freed and saved man. It was only then that it occurred to us that we might have turned off the gas in the first place, and so saved ourselves all our anguish and toil.

I can say honestly that I tried the best I knew how to get along with the politicians I served, but in the long run it simply could not be done. They treated me fairly, bearing no grudges. But it is one thing to run an independent newspaper, quite another to edit an “organ.” And there is no deceiving the public. Not that I tried. Indeed, if anything, the shoe was on the other foot. We parted company eventually to our mutual relief, and quite unexpectedly I found my lantern turning the bread-winner of the family. The notion of using it as a means of advertising had long allured me. There was a large population out on Long Island that traded in Brooklyn stores and could be reached in that way. In fact, it proved to be so. I made money that fall travelling through the towns and villages and giving open-air exhibitions in which the “ads” of Brooklyn merchants were cunningly interlarded with very beautiful colored views, of which I had a fine collection. When the season was too far advanced to allow of this, I established myself in a window at Myrtle Avenue and Fulton Street and appealed to the city crowds with my pictures. So I filled in a gap of several months, while our people on the other side crossed themselves at my having turned street fakir. At least we got that impression from their letters. They were not to blame. That is their way of looking at things. A chief reason why I liked this country from the very beginning was that it made no difference what a man was doing, so long as it was some honest, decent work. I liked my advertising scheme. I advertised nothing I would not have sold the people myself, and I gave it to them in a way that was distinctly pleasing and good for them; for my pictures were real work of art, not the cheap trash you see nowadays on street screens.

The city crowds were always appreciative. In the country the hoodlums made trouble occasionally. We talk a great deal about city toughs. In nine cases out of ten they are laos of normal impulses whose resources have all been smothered by the slum; of whom the street and its lawlessness, and the tenement that is without a home, have made ruffians. With better opportunities they might have been heroes. The country hoodlum is oftener what he is because his bent is that way, though he, too, is not rarely driven into mischief by the utter poverty—æsthetically I mean—of his environment. Hence he shows off in his isolation so much worse than his city brother. It is no argument for the slum. It makes toughs, whereas the other is one in spite of his country home. That is to say, if the latter is really a home. There is only one cure then—an almighty thrashing.

There ought to be some ex-hoodlums left in Flushing to echo that sentiment, even after a quarter of a century. From certain signs I knew, when I hung my curtain between two trees in the little public park down by the fountain with the goldfish, that there was going to be trouble. My patience had been pretty well worn down, and I made preparations. I hired four stout men who were spoiling for a fight, and put good hickory clubs into their hands, bidding them restrain their natural desire to use them till the time came. My forebodings were not vain. Potatoes, turnips, and eggs flew, not only at the curtain, but at the lantern and me. I stood it until the Castle of Heidelberg, which was one of my most beautiful colored views, was rent in twain by a rock that went clear through the curtain. Then I gave the word. In a trice the apparatus was gathered up and thrown into a wagon that was waiting, the horses headed for Jamaica. We made one dash into the crowd, and a wail arose from the bruised and bleeding hoodlums that hung over the town like a nightmare, while we galloped out of it, followed by cries of rage and a mob with rocks and clubs. But we had the best team in town, and soon lost them.

Vengeance? No! Of course there was the ruined curtain and those eggs to be settled for; but, on the whole, I think we were a kind of village improvement society for the occasion, though we did not stay to wait for a vote of thanks. I am sure it was our due all the same.

Along in the summer of 1877 Wells and I hatched out a scheme of country advertising on a larger scale, of which the lantern was to be the vehicle. We were to publish a directory of the city of Elmira. How we came to select that city I have forgotten, but the upshot of that latest of my business ventures I am not likely to forget soon. Our plan was to boom the advertising end of the enterprise by a nightly street display in the interest of our patrons. We had barely got into town when the railroad strikes of that memorable summer reached Elmira. There had been dreadful trouble, fire and bloodshed, in Pennsylvania, and the citizens took steps at once to preserve the peace. A regiment of deputy sheriffs were sworn in, and the town was put under semi-martial law. Indeed, soldiers with fixed bayonets guarded every train and car that went over the bridge between the business section of the town and the railroad shops across the Chemung River.

Our ill luck—or good; when a thing comes upon you so unexpectedly as did that, I am rather disposed to consider it a stroke of good fortune, however disguised—would have it that the building we had chosen to hang our curtain on was right at the end of this bridge which seemed to be the danger point. From the other end the strikers looked across the river, hourly expected to make a movement of some kind, exactly what I don’t know. I know that the whole city was on pins and needles about it, while we, all unconscious that we were the object of sharp scrutiny, were vainly trying to string our sixteen-foot curtain. There was a high wind that blew it out over the river despite all our efforts to catch and hold it. Twice it escaped our grasp. We could see a crowd of strikers watching us on the other side. The deputies who held our end of the bridge saw them too. We were strangers; came from no one knew where. They must have concluded that we were in league with the enemy and signalling to him. When for the third time our big white flag was wafted toward the shops, a committee of citizens came up from the street and let us know in as few words as possible that any other place would be healthier for us just then than Elmira.

In vain we protested that we were noncombatants and engaged in peaceful industry. The committee pointed to the flag and to the crowd at the farther end of the bridge. They eyed our preparations for making gas askance, and politely but firmly insisted that the next train out of town was especially suited for our purpose. There was nothing to be done. It was another case of circumstantial evidence, and in the absence of backing of any kind we did the only thing we could; packed up and went. It was not a time for trifling. The slaughter of a number of militiamen in a Pennsylvania round-house that was set on fire by the strikers was fresh in the public mind. But it was the only time I have been suspected of sympathy with violence in the settlement of labor disputes. The trouble with that plan is that it does not settle anything, but rakes up fresh injuries to rankle indefinitely and widen the gap between the man who does the work and the man who hires it done so that he may have time to attend to his own. Both workmen, they only need to understand each other and their common interests to see the folly of quarrelling. To do that they must know one another; but a blow and a kick are a poor introduction. I am not saying that the provocation is not sometimes great; but better not. It does not do any good, but a lot of harm. Besides, if we haven’t got to the point yet where we can settle our disputes peaceably by discussion, the fault is not all the employers by any manner of means.

We jumped out of the ashes into the fire, as it turned out. At Scranton our train was held up. There were torpedoes on the track; rails torn up or something. For want of something better to do, we went out to take a look at the town. At the head of the main street was a big crowd. Untaught by experience, we bored our way through it to where a line of men with guns, some in their shirt-sleeves, some in office coats, some in dusters, were blocking advance to the coal company’s stores. The crowd hung sullenly back, leaving a narrow space clear in front of the line. Within it a man—I learned afterward that he was the Mayor of the town—was haranguing the people, counselling them to go back to their homes quietly. Suddenly a brick was thrown from behind me and struck him on the head.

I heard a word of brief command, the rattle of a score of guns falling into as many extended hands, and a volley was fired into the crowd point blank, A man beside me weltered in his blood. There was an instant’s dead silence, then the rushing of a thousand feet and wild cries of terror as the mob broke and fled. We ran with it. In all my life I never ran so fast. I would never have believed that I could do it. Ed teased me to the day of his death about it, insisting that one might have played marbles on my coat-tails, they flew out behind so. But he was an easy winner in that race. The riots were over, however, before they had begun, and perhaps a greater calamity was averted. It was the only time I was ever under fire, except once when a crazy man came into Mulberry Street years after and pointed a revolver at the reporters. I regret to say that I gave no better account of myself then, and for a man who was so hot to go to war I own it is a bad showing. Perhaps it was as well I didn’t go, even on that account. I might have run the wrong way when it came to the scratch.

We were not yet done suffering undeserved indignities on that trip, for when we got as far as Stanhope, on the Morris and Essex road, our money had given out. I offered the station-master my watch as security for the price of two tickets to New York, but he bestowed only a contemptuous glance upon it and remarked that there were a good many fakirs running about the country palming off “snide” gold watches on people. Our lantern outfit found no more favor with him, and we were compelled to tramp it to the village in Schooley’s Mountains where my wife was then summering with our baby. We walked all night, and when at dawn we arrived, had the mortification of being held up by the farmer’s dog, who knew nothing about us. He walked alongside of me all that day, as I was pushing the baby-carriage up hill, eying me with a look that said plainly enough I had better not make a move to sneak away with the child. Wells went on to the city to replenish our funds.

And here I take leave of this loyal friend in the story of my life. A better one I never had. He lived to grow rich in possessions, but his wealth was his undoing. It is one of the sore spots in my life—and there are many more than I like to think of—that when he needed me most I was not able to be to him what I would and should have been. We had drifted too far apart then, and the influence I had over him once I had myself surrendered. It was so with Charles. It was so with Nicolai. They come, sometimes when I am alone, and nod to me out of the dim past: “You were not tempted. You should have helped!” Yes, God help me! it is true. I am more to blame than they. I should have helped and did not. What would I not give that I could unsay that now! Two of them died by their own hand, the third in Bloomingdale.

I had been making several attempts to get a foothold on one of the metropolitan newspapers, but always without success. That fall I tried the Tribune, the city editor of which, Mr. Shanks, was one of my neighbors, but was told, with more frankness than flattery, that I was “too green.” Very likely Mr. Shanks had been observing my campaign against the beats and thought me a dangerous man in those days of big libel suits. I should have done the same thing. But a few weeks after he changed his mind and invited me to come on the paper and try my hand. So I joined the staff of the Tribune five years after its great editor had died, a beaten and crushed man, one of the most pathetic figures in American political history.

They were not halcyon days, those winter months of reporting for the Tribune. I was on trial, and it was hard work and very little pay, not enough to live on, so that we were compelled to take to our little pile to make ends meet. But there was always a bright fire and a cheery welcome for me at home, so what did it matter? It was a good winter despite the desperate stunts sometimes set me. Reporters on general work do not sleep on flowery beds of ease. I remember well one awful night when word came of a dreadful disaster on the Coney Island shore. Half of it had been washed away by the sea, the report ran, with houses and people. I was sent out to get at the truth of the thing. I started in the early twilight and got as far as Gravesend. The rest of the way I had to foot it through snow and slush knee-deep in the face of a blinding storm, and got to Sheepshead Bay dead beat, only to find that the ice and the tide had shut off all approach to the island.

I did the next best thing; I gathered from the hotel-keepers of the Bay an account of the wreck on the beach that lacked nothing in vividness, thanks to their laudable desire not to see an enterprising reporter cheated out of his rightful “space.” Then I hired a sleigh and drove home through the storm, wet through—“I can hear the water yet running out of your boots,” says my wife—wet through and nearly frozen stiff, but tingling with pride at my feat.

The Tribune next day was the only paper that had an account of the tidal wave on the island. But something about it did not seem to strike the city editor just right. There was an unwonted suavity in his summons when he called me to his desk which I had learned to dread as liable to conceal some fatal thrust.

“So you went to the island last night, Mr. Riis,” he observed, regarding me over the edge of the paper.

“No, sir! I couldn’t get across; nobody could.”

“Eh!” He lowered the paper an inch, and took a better look: “this very circumstantial account—”

“Was gathered from the hotel-keepers in Sheepshead Bay, who had seen it all. If there had been a boat not stove by the ice, I would have got across somehow.”

Mr. Shanks dropped the paper and considered me almost kindly. I saw that he had my bill for the sleigh-ride in his hand.

“Right!” he said. “We’ll allow the sleigh. We’ll allow even the stove, to a man who owns he didn’t see it, though it is pretty steep.” He pointed to a paragraph which described how, after the wreck of the watchman’s shanty, the kitchen stove floated ashore with the house-cat alive and safe upon it. I still believe that an unfriendly printer played me that trick.

“Next time,” he added, dismissing me, “make them swear to the stove. There is no accounting for cats.”

But, though I did not hear the last of it in the office for a long time, I know that my measure was taken by the desk that day. I was trusted after that, even though I had made a mistake.

In spite of it, I did not get on. There was not a living in it for me, that was made plain enough. We were too many doing general work. After six months of hard grubbing I decided that I had better seek my fortune elsewhere. Spring was coming, and it seemed a waste of time to stay where I was. I wrote out my resignation and left it on the city editor’s desk. Some errand took me out of the office. When I returned it lay there still, unopened. I saw it, and thought I would try another week. I might make a strike. So I took the note away and tore it up, just as Mr. Shanks entered the room.

That evening it set in snowing at a great rate. I had been uptown on a late assignment, and was coming across Printing-House Square, running at top speed to catch the edition. The wind did its part. There is no corner in all New York where it blows as it does around the Tribune building. As I flew into Spruce Street I brought up smack against two men coming out of the side door. One of them I knocked off his feet into a snowdrift. He floundered about in it and swore dreadfully. By the voice I knew that it was Mr. Shanks. I stood petrified, mechanically pinning his slouch hat to the ground with my toe. He got upon his feet at last and came toward me, much wrought up.

“Who in thunder—” he growled angrily and caught sight of my rueful face. I was thinking I might as well have left my note on his desk that morning, for now I was going to be discharged anyhow.

“Is that the way you treat your city editor, Riis?” he asked, while I handed him his hat.

“It was the wind, sir, and I was running—”

“Running! What is up that set you going at that rate?”

I told him of the meeting I had attended—it was of no account—and that I was running to catch the edition. He heard me out.

“And do you always run like that when you are out on assignments?”

“When it is late like this, yes. How else would I get my copy in?”

“Well, just take a reef in when you round the corner,” he said, brushing the snow from his clothes. “Don’t run your city editor down again.” And he went his way.

It was with anxious forebodings I went to the office the next morning. Mr. Shanks was there before me. He was dictating to his secretary, Mr. Taggart, who had been witness of the collision of the night before, when I came in. Presently I was summoned to his desk, and went there with sinking heart. Things had commenced to look up a bit in the last twenty-four hours, and I had hoped yet to make it go. Now, it was all over.

“Mr. Riis,” he began stiffly, “you knocked me down last night without cause.”

“Yes, sir! But I—”

“Into a snowdrift,” he went on, unheeding. “Nice thing for a reporter to do to his commanding officer. Now, sir! this will not do. We must find some way of preventing it in the future. Our man at Police Headquarters has left. I am going to send you up there in his place. You can run there all you want to, and you will want to all you can. It is a place that needs a man who will run to get his copy in and tell the truth and stick to it. You will find plenty of fighting there. But don’t go knocking people down—unless you have to.”

Mulberry Street.

And with this kind of an introduction I was sent off to Mulberry Street, where I was to find my lifework. It is twenty-three years since the day I took my first walk up there and looked over the ground that has since become so familiar to me. I knew it by reputation as the hardest place on the paper, and it was in no spirit of exultation that I looked out upon the stirring life of the block. If the truth be told, I think I was, if anything, a bit afraid. The story of the big fight the Tribune reporter was having on his hands up there with all the other papers had long been echoing through newspaperdom, and I was not deceived. But, after all, I had been doing little else myself, and, having given no offence, my cause would be just. In which case, what had I to fear? So in my soul I commended my work and myself to the God of battles who gives victory, and took hold.

Right here, lest I make myself appear better than I am, I want to say that I am not a praying man in the sense of being versed in the language of prayer or anything of that kind. I wish I were. So, I might have been better able to serve my unhappy friends when they needed me. Indeed, those who have known me under strong provocation—provocation is very strong in Mulberry Street—would scorn such an intimation, and, I am sorry to say, with cause. I was once a deacon, but they did not often let me lead in prayer. My supplications ordinarily take the form of putting the case plainly to Him who is the source of all right and all justice, and leaving it so. If I were to find that I could not do that, I should decline to go into the fight, or, if I had to, should feel that I were to be justly beaten. In all the years of my reporting I have never omitted this when anything big was on foot, whether a fire, a murder, a robbery, or whatever might come in the way of duty, and I have never heard that my reports were any the worse for it. I know they were better. Perhaps the notion of a police reporter praying that he may write a good murder story may seem ludicrous, even irreverent, to some people. But that is only because they fail to make out in it the human element which dignifies anything and rescues it from reproach. Unless I could go to my story that way I would not go to it at all. I am very sure that there is no irreverence in it—just the reverse.

So I dived in. But before I did it I telegraphed to my wife:—

“Got staff appointment. Police Headquarters. $25 a week. Hurrah!”

I knew it would make her happy.