Social Gospel

To a growing number of middle-class Protestant reformers, neither Parkhurst, Comstock, the Charity Organization Society nor the Salvation Army was attuned to the scale or complexity of New York’s problems. All these activists, in one way or another, focused on promoting personal salvation or constraining individual behavior, when what was really needed was a theological perspective that confronted issues at a societal level—a “social gospel” that rejected the inevitability of snarling conflict between capital and labor, spurned an inhumane laissez-faire acceptance of urban immiserization, and rejected competitive selfishness as the path to progress. Nothing less would reverse working people’s disaffection from the civic status quo or forestall their adoption of radical solutions for metropolitan ills.

Social gospel sentiments emerged in most Protestant denominations, though most Presbyterians and Methodists stuck to fostering individual redemption through prayer, frugality, temperance, and hard work. Baptists, still largely a rural sect, were slow to take up urban problems, though in New York City men like Walter Rauschenbusch began coming to grips with metropolitan realities. Before he came to New York in 1886 as pastor of the Second German Baptist Church, Rauschenbusch later recalled, he had “had no idea of social questions.” But in New York, “among the working people, my social education began.” In Hell’s Kitchen, “when I began to apply my previous religious ideas to the conditions I found, I discovered they didn’t fit.” Laissez-faire came to seem heartless and selfish, Rauschenbusch became a strong Henry George supporter, and he would go on to formulate a theology of social reform.

Congregationalist Lyman Abbott, who also took part in the George campaign, succeeded to the prestigious pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church after Henry Ward Beecher died in 1887. Abbott also assumed editorship of the Christian Union, a leading religious weekly, which became the Outlook in 1893. Abbott signaled a major change in his denomination’s approach when he argued that “individualism is the characteristic of simple barbarism, not of republican civilization,” and that “with all the good that competition has wrought, the principle is now a destructive one.”

It was the Episcopal Church, however, a sect that to all appearances was more interested in Society than in a social gospel, that took the lead in jettisoning laissez-faire ethics and tackling the city’s social problems. Henry Codman Potter, rector of fashionable Grace Church since 1868 and bishop of the Diocese of New York since 1887, had long been known as the favorite clergyman of the smart set, and he had devoted much of his attention to a sumptuous church building and beautification program. Despite some complacent clubbiness, however, churches in the Anglican communion had a long track record of taking seriously the obligations of the rich to the poor, a tendency nourished by New York Episcopalians’ ongoing connections to British Anglicans, who had never completely abandoned the old medieval dream of a society guided and led by their Church. When the mid-1880s depression had led to massive demonstrations in Britain and the growth there of a socialist movement (thanks in part to Henry George’s speaking tours), English church leaders responded by turning to a more social Christianity.

In New York, moreover, many Episcopalian laymen were drawn from the ranks of the emerging corporate elite—the very bankers and businessmen who were rejecting laissez-faire ethics in the economic marketplace. Nowhere were the consequences of this connection exemplified more dramatically than at St. George’s Church. Erected in 1848 on then-exclusive Stuyvesant Square (and rebuilt there after it burned down in 1865), by the 1880s the brownstone Romanesque Revival church was in trouble. Its Protestant parishioners had dwindled away, leaving it adrift in a sea of Catholics and Jews, facing empty pews and mounting debts. Trinity could survive without a constituency by living off its tenement rent rolls, but St. George’s had either to reach out or move on. Digging in their heels, the remaining vestrymen—led by Senior Warden John Pierpont Morgan—named the Rev. William Stephen Rainsford as the new rector in 1883.

The thirty-three-year-old Rainsford, a Dublin native with a Cambridge education, had worked in urban ministries since the 1870s and developed strong views on the crisis of urban Protestantism. It was, he said, essential to confront the fact that “the whole aspect of the modern Protestant churches, in our large cities at least, is repellent to the poor man.” When interviewed for the position at St. George’s, Rainsford had proposed to Morgan that the church deemphasize doctrine and open itself up to the poor by abolishing pew rentals and offering a variety of secular programs. “Done,” said Morgan, who agreed to make up any resulting deficits. The vestry poured resources into recreational and educational facilities, including choirs, an industrial school, a boys’ club, and a Girls’ Friendly Society. These activities, together with Rainsford’s vigorous social preaching, attracted over seven thousand people to one or another program by the end of the decade.


St. George’s was an outstanding example of an “Institutional Church” designed to “reach the masses,” but there were more radical departures afoot within New York Episcopalianism. Some proposed the church go beyond providing social services to working-class parishioners, to forging an alliance with working-class activists dedicated to restructuring capital-labor relations.

In 1881 the Rev. James Otis Huntington had founded the Order of the Holy Cross, a semimonastic organization, and settled on the Lower East Side. Though a Harvard graduate from an elite background, Father Huntington startled his colleagues by joining the Knights of Labor and becoming an ardent supporter of Henry George. He began reporting on union meetings for the Episcopal press and promoting George’s single tax in church circles. In 1884 the semiofficial but prestigious Church Congress invited George to talk on the topic “Is our Civilization Just to Workingmen.” In the 1886 campaign, Father Huntington addressed street crowds from the back of trucks while wearing his priestly robes; he was second only to Father McGlynn in providing clerical assistance.

Other church leaders now began to address the issues Huntington raised. Bishop Potter himself had been dissatisfied for some time with the rabid antilabor ferocity of many theologians. He had said, apropos of the repression of the Great Strike of 1877, that “we shall not finally silence the heresies of the communist with the bullets of the militia.” In 1886 he issued a pastoral letter that, while denouncing boycotts, admitted the justice of workingmen’s demands. He particularly rejected the laissez-faire argument that labor was a commodity “to be bought and sold, employed or dismissed, paid or underpaid, as the market shall decree.”

Reminding his clerics that “in New York centers the capital that controls the traffic, and largely the manufactures, of this new world,” Potter pointed out that “in your congregations are many of those who control that capital.” It was their duty to make clear to those who employed labor and reaped its benefits that “wealth brings with it a definite responsibility. . . that luxury has its decent limits. . . that class-churches and class-distinctions of kindred kinds have nearly destroyed in the hearts of many of the poor all faith in the genuineness of a Religion.”

The bishop’s letter provoked widespread discussion among New York’s Episcopal clergy and laity and led, the following year, to formation of the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor (CAIL). With Potter, Huntington, and thirty-eight other bishops serving as vice-presidents, CAIL became the first powerful Protestant group to actively defend labor’s right to organize. More, it declared solidarity with labor’s struggle against slums, sweatshops, and child labor. Starting in 1891 Trinity held an annual celebration called Labor Sunday, tied to the new Labor Day, to which the Knights of Labor were invited to send delegates, and in which a red flag was borne in procession. Perhaps more impressive, given the vestry’s traditional tight-fistedness, was the decision of the diocese that same year to allocate church printing only to firms that paid union rates. In 1893 CAIL established a Board of Arbitration, with coequal representatives from capital, labor, and the public, to help settle strikes.

Others adopted still more radical stances. William Dwight Porter Bliss, a Boston Episcopalian clergyman, member of the Knights, and enthusiastic follower of Henry George, formed, in 1889, the Society of Christian Socialists, which soon started a chapter in New York City. The Bliss group advocated the eight-hour day, free technical education for workers, higher education for women, public employment of the unemployed, a municipal program of public housing and slum clearance, municipal ownership of public utilities, and national ownership of railroads, telegraphs, and mines.

There was in many of these initiatives a somewhat facile optimism, a reluctance to confront hard realities of power, a comforting conviction that there were no opponents to be overcome but only misguided adversaries to be enlightened. Nevertheless the Episcopalians’ pleas for social solidarity constituted a dramatic break with the bleak tooth-and-claw approach to which other Protestants had and still adhered.


If not all Protestants were social gospelites, neither were all social gospelites Protestant. The reform wing of Judaism—which assembled in Pittsburgh in 1885—expressed its concern about the “evils of the present organization of society.” But the forefront of the Jewish movement was occupied by a small number of highly assimilated activists, among whom the most preeminent was Felix Adler.

Adler, born in Germany in 1851, was brought to New York in 1857 when his father, Samuel Adler, was called to the rabbinate of Temple Emanu-El. The family settled near Stuyvesant Square, where his father raised him in the emerging Reform tradition, and his mother involved him in her work with such Jewish charities as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Felix was disappointed with Columbia College, finding it mired in Christian parochialism, and much preferred his graduate work at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, where he was exposed to the problems of industrial society and a variety of proposed solutions.

Back in New York, Adler scotched expectations he would succeed his father in the Emanu-El pulpit when, in 1873, he preached a sermon called “The Judaism of the Future.” In it he embraced a secular, activist, and universalistic philosophy, rejecting prayer, ritual, and theology. Beginning in 1876 the austere Dr. Adler delivered Sunday morning lectures in Standard Hall on the need to translate “creed into deed” by struggling for social justice. The following year, the Society for Ethical Culture was incorporated, with Adler as its “lecturer”; its board, chaired by Joseph Seligman, included trustees ranging from Henry Morgenthau Sr. to Samuel Gompers.

Over the next decade, the Ethical Culture Society initiated a series of social innovations, including a free kindergarten, a district nursing program, and a Workingman’s School. Adler also fought political corruption, advanced the cause of progressive education, and, most notably, took up the issue of tenement house reform.

In 1884 Adler called for revision of the badly flawed 1879 Tenement House Law. This piece of legislation had emerged from an 1878 architectural competition to design a tenement, twenty-five by one hundred feet, that would maximize both investor profits and tenant satisfaction. The judges (who included Dr. Potter) awarded first prize to James Ware’s “dumbbell” design. Ware’s wasp-waisted building had front and rear wings, connected by a narrow hall containing the stairways, an arrangement that allowed light to filter dimly into the stairwell through airshafts on either side.

As the 1879 housing legislation required that every tenement bedroom have a window opening directly onto a street, a yard, or an acceptable substitute—like the airshaft of the Ware design—the law quickly made the dumbbell tenement a terrible reality for hundreds of thousands of tenants. Landlords packed four families into each of the five or six floors, with each family (plus boarders) squashed into a three-or four-room apartment, the “bedrooms” of which measured seven by eight and a half feet. The airshafts—noisy with the quarrels of twenty-plus families and noisome from the cooking odors of twenty-plus kitchens—-became garbage dumps and firetraps, which shot flames up from one story to the next.

In his 1884 lecture “The Helping Hand of Government,” Adler called for state intervention against such substandard housing. As workers could not build tenements for themselves, “the law of morality and common decency binds the Government to see to it that these houses shall not prove fatal to the lives and morality of the inmates.” If houses were overcrowded, the state “must compel a reduction of the number of inmates, enforce renovation at the expense of the landlord, and where that is no longer possible, must dismantle the houses and remove them from existence.”

Adler nevertheless believed that the private market could provide affordable and decent housing for working people, if philanthropic investors would agree to settle for profit margins lower than the market rate. Here he followed Brooklyn housing reformer Alfred Tredway White, who in 1877-79 had erected the low-rent Home Buildings and Tower Buildings along Hicks and Baltic streets using plans similar to Sir Sidney Waterlow’s 1863 Industrial Dwellings Company of London: blocks of sunlit, well-ventilated apartments with a courtyard in the center.

White hoped his limited dividend project had demonstrated that private capital could solve the housing crisis, and Adler’s 1885 effort—he helped found the Tenement House Building Company of New York—was intended to spur the model housing movement along. The company restricted profits to 4 percent and constructed six tenements on Cherry Street. When the 108 two- or three-room apartments opened in December 1887, many Russian Jews were attracted by the moderate rents, as well as the separate toilets for each two apartments, nine free baths, kindergarten room, roof playground, common laundry room, and superintendent.

Neither these nor other model tenements that followed, however, would usher in a new housing order, as these investment schemes failed to challenge the basic economic arrangements shaping land use in New York City. Inflated land costs remained high, and the small capitalists who dominated the building industry were not able or willing to settle for 4 or 5 percent when they could get a 15 percent rate of return. The dumbbells would continue to constitute the overwhelming majority of new working-class housing; by 1900 there would be 13,600 of them below 14th Street, twenty-eight thousand above.


In 1886 Stan ton Coit, an Episcopalian turned Ethical Culturalist, spent three months in England living at the recently founded Toynbee Hall, which he soon decided was an exemplary application of Adler’s creed-into-deed philosophy. Since the 1870s a stream of wealthy young Oxford men had been residing in London’s East End during vacation periods to “sup sorrow with the poor.” After publication in 1882 of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, an expose of slum life, sporadic visits no longer seemed sufficient, and a new Universities Settlement Association (1884) opened Toynbee Hall. To it flocked students inspired by Matthew Arnold’s faith in the redeeming influence of culture. Through clubs, classes, lectures, and concerts they would uplift the laboring man. Through investigations of neighborhood conditions, they would improve his material lot.

Returning to Manhattan just as the 1886 mayoral campaign was gearing up, Coit prevailed on Adler’s Ethical Culture Society to help establish the New York Neighborhood Guild. In a four-room tenement apartment at 146 Forsyth Street, in a mixed Ger­man, Irish, and Jewish neighborhood, Coit worked to provide private services to the poor and to organize the poor themselves to demand better public ones. Coit was soon joined by Charles B. Stover, a social gospel man par excellence. A graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, Stover had been a mission worker on the Bowery, directed the Ethical Culture Society’s model tenement house, and helped organize the Society of Christian Socialists. When Coit departed in 1888 to accept a ministerial position in London, Stover became head of what would be renamed the University Settlement.

Soon idealistic and well-bred young men were flocking to the slums. In 1891 a group of Episcopalian laymen—backed financially by Robert Fulton Cutting, J. P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt—established East Side House at 76th Street and the East River in an Irish and German neighborhood. In 1892 the Educational Alliance opened its doors, with support from Jacob Schiff, Isaac Seligman, and Isidor Straus. In 1895 alumni of the Union Theological Seminary began the Union Settlement in a tenement at 202 East 96th. Brooklyn joined the movement in 1889, when Maxwell House was established on Concord Street by members of the Second Unitarian Church. These and other groups established kindergartens, libraries, clubs, classes, concerts, gyms, and playgrounds and helped organize neighborhoods to press for public baths, parks, and cooperative stores.

At first the settlements were all-male enterprises, but in 1889 Vida Scudder, an impassioned young Wellesley instructor who had visited Oxford and been inspired by English developments, joined with alumnae from Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr to establish the College Settlement at 95 Rivington Street, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. For well-bred females to live among the poor was unprecedented. The first visitor was a policeman who, convinced the women were opening a whorehouse, promised to leave them alone if they paid him the customary contribution. The press sneered at the project. “Seven Lilies have been dropped in the mud,” one paper observed, “and the mud does not seem particularly pleased.”

Widespread disapproval didn’t stop over eighty college women from applying for residency. The settlement house movement was made to order for this first generation of female graduates, who, having stepped outside restrictive domesticity, found it hard to step back into it. Settlement houses offered a means to live outside the bourgeois home and to extend the freedom and comradeship of student years. The Rivington Street women, who furnished their building with pictures, books, and a piano, noted that “upstairs, in our rooms, it seemed as if we were back in college again.”

For all their challenges to bourgeois gender roles, settlement house women insisted on their place in the genteel world. They were, after all, embarked on an unimpeachably proper project—the purveying of elite culture to their plebeian neighbors—and early programs had a distinctly Arnoldian aspect. Art exhibitions diffused a sense of beauty; a Good Seed Club for girls taught about flowers; a Hero Club for boys showed how the Knights of the Round Table had learned to be “chivalrous and true.” Some classes taught the art of serving tea from a silver service or accepting calling cards on a tray, prompting Thorstein Veblen to remark caustically that settlement workers seemed intent on the “incubation, by precept and example, of certain punctilios of upper-class propriety in manners and customs.”

Soon enough, however, they were providing more vital services, no one more so than Lillian Wald, who in 1893 convinced Sophia Loeb and Jacob Schiff to underwrite a visiting nurse service. Wald, raised in a comfortable bourgeois Rochester family, came to study at New York Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1889. After graduating in 1891 she worked for a year at an orphan asylum, enrolled for a time in Elizabeth Blackwell’s Women’s Medical College, then taught a course in home nursing at an East Side program run by Mrs. Loeb.

Stunned by the suffering and poverty, Wald decided to move there permanently. Charles Stover of the University Settlement guided Wald around the neighborhood; she joined a Social Reform Club discussion group that included Felix Adler; she stayed for a time at the College Settlement on Rivington Street; then she won Schiff’s backing for establishing the visiting nurse service with Mary Brewster, a friend from nursing school, out of a fifth-floor apartment on Jefferson Street. Called the Nurses’ Settlement, it would be renamed the Henry Street Settlement when it relocated in 1895.

Wald and Brewster were by no means the first women to offer medical services to poor communities. Catholic nuns had long been in the field, and in the years after Father McGlynn founded the Anti-Poverty Society in 1887—an organization that merged Christian morality with secular reform in much the way Protestant social gospelers did—the number of hospitals under Catholic auspices steadily increased. (Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini’s Columbus Hospital for Italian immigrants opened in 1892.) What the Nurses’ Settlement offered was nonsectarian care—Wald originated the term “public health nurse”—and the women provided it in patients’ homes, a service for which they charged next to nothing, or nothing at all. Wald and Brewster were pioneers, as well, in searching out tuberculosis victims, supplying them with sputum cups and disinfectant, and teaching them how to protect others from infection.

Daily life in the slums nudged Wald—and most other settlement workers—toward an ever more sympathetic and sophisticated understanding of the roots of poverty. Like social gospelers generally, they began to jettison moralistic explanations of poverty in favor of sociological ones. They shed as well the nativism and maternalism/paternalism that had characterized previous generations of genteel reformers. Increasingly, they got caught up in workplace and trade union struggles. In time, settlement workers would take the lead in campaigns for sanitation, industrial regulation, public education, better housing, parks and playgrounds, gyms and camps, and women’s rights. From being missionaries to the poor they became advocates for the poor.


The changing character of genteel reform in New York—its new willingness to see poverty as a social rather than individual problem and its preference for engaged activism over pious exhortation—was registered with unusual clarity in the metamorphosis of Josephine Shaw Lowell. From being a chilling anticharity crusader in the 1860s and 1870s, she blossomed in the 1880s and 1890s into a warm advocate of social reform.

What appears to have started her down the road from Auntie Scrooge to militant activist was eloquent denunciations of her Charity Organization Society issuing from the social gospel ranks, notably from the Rev. Dr. B. F. DeCosta, Episcopal minister of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, a founder of CALL, and a close friend of Father Huntington. COS, said DeCosta in 1884, was “the meanest humbug in the city of New York” and was engaged in a “heartless oppression of the unfortunate.” “While the rich are allowed systematically to rob the poor,” he charged, “we have a Society carried on at a large cost to prevent the poor from robbing the rich.” COS closed ranks against DeCosta and other critics, but the charges rankled, fostering grave internal dissension among board members who felt uncomfortable about the prominence of “repressive and disciplinary work.”

Lowell would also be deeply influenced by Henry George, though in her case the connection was an intensely personal one. Before her father, Francis George Shaw, died in 1882, the old Fourierist and radical abolitionist found his moral energies rekindled by George’s writings, so much so that he funded the printing of a thousand copies of Progress and Poverty for distribution to libraries. Shaw became George’s financial angel and made him virtually a member of the family. Josephine found George’s views to be far closer to the compassionate and religious values that had drawn her into the antislavery movement than were the secular Darwinian beliefs held by the men with whom she worked in the charity movement. By 1885 George’s explication of the connections between unemployment and poverty had so colored her thinking that in a speech at the Congregational Club, pointedly entitled “The Bitter Cry of the Poor in New York,” Lowell declared that “if the working people had all they ought to have we should not have the paupers and criminals.”

Lowell’s rethinking was furthered by a belated recognition of just how difficult it was for young working women to survive in New York City. This insight was pressed upon her by a nineteen-year-old labor organizer named Leonora O’Reilly, whose background was light-years removed from the genteel Mrs. Lowell’s. O’Reilly grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1870s and 1880s in a household of Irish rebels. As a child she was enchanted by the reminiscences of family friend Victor Drury, who was an acquaintance of Marx, had fought with Mazzini for Italian independence, and had survived the Paris Commune. In 1881, aged eleven, she went to work in a collar factory; in 1886, aged sixteen, she was recruited into the Knights of Labor by another Commune fighter and O’Reilly family friend, Jean Baptiste Hubert.

Soon O’Reilly helped organize a Working Women’s Society to investigate and expose conditions in the clothing trades. They leveled a litany of charges at manufacturers, ranging from locked doors in tenement house sweatshops to unsanitary working conditions. But what touched off a public uproar was their description of life in the great department stores.

The picture was indeed a pathetic one. Within a decade of the founding of Macy’s, the retail sales trade was relying on women—chiefly young girls—for 80 percent of its labor force. Managers liked them because lady customers could discuss intimate apparel with them, because they seemed more demure and less dishonest, but mainly because they could be paid less than men. The shopgirls (as they were known despite their desire to be called salesladies) typically made five to six dollars a week (cash girls might take home $1.50). Layoffs were common. One New York store regularly fired women after five years’ satisfactory service to forestall demands for increased salary. Discipline was harsh and arbitrary. At Macy’s sitting was forbidden while at work (and work, in busy seasons, could fill a sixteen-hour day). Lateness was fined. “Unnecessary conversations” could lead to instant dismissal. Facilities were squalid.

O’Reilly and the Working Women’s Society took these facts to several middle-class women, including Helen Campbell, whose 1882 book The Problem of the Poor had described her work in a waterfront mission where she discovered that working-class women’s wages were simply too low to qualify as a livelihood. Campbell, daughter of a New York attorney, had followed up with an influential 1886 series in the Tribune giving a first-person account of a bitter woman garment worker. Next year she produced a book, Prisoners of Poverty: Women Wage-Earners, Their Trades and Their Lives, that used vivid, indeed sensationalist, prose and the new methods of social science to expose, in telling and documented detail, conditions in the needle trades and department stores; it also attacked hard-hearted clergymen for ascribing the resulting poverty to vice.

O’Reilly also turned to Josephine Shaw Lowell for help. Lowell and Campbell arranged a mass meeting at which the young activist and others presented their case, and Father Huntington exhorted the middle-class audience to help “correct the social evil that permits their unfortunate sisters to be so frightfully overworked and badly paid.” By 1889 Lowell was so won over—what the “poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food,” she wrote her sister-in-law—that she resigned from the State Board of Charities and threw all her formidable energies into supporting the Working Women’s Society. She had decided that helping the “five hundred thousand wage earners in this city, 200,000 of them women and 75,000 of those working under dreadful conditions or for starvation wages,” was more important than harrying the twenty-five thousand dependents of the city’s charities.

In 1891 she, Campbell, and Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi organized the New York City Consumers’ League. Lowell became its first president, the board met in her home, and its offices were established in the United Charities Building. Taking a leaf out of the Central Labor Union’s book, the women proposed boycotting department stores and retail shops that did not treat employees properly. Lowell argued that just as “most decent people object to buying stolen goods, even though they get them very cheap,” so in the case of products of sweated labor, the “time and strength of the people who made them have been virtually stolen, even though under the forms of law.” During the abolitionist crusade women shoppers had given up slave-made cotton and sugar; now they should forgo goods identified by the league as made by exploited women.

Rather than promulgate a blacklist of stores to avoid, the league drew up a White List of stores to patronize. Only eight of the large department stores were included as dealing fairly with their employees. The White List was published in the papers, printed on postal cards and mailed to four thousand names taken from the Social Register, and placed in the ladies’ parlors of the twenty largest hotels.

As with the settlement house organizers, the Consumers’ League women’s analysis and programs grew steadily more sophisticated. Soon they would be involved in campaigns seeking state intervention to ensure adequate health and safety and to regulate maximum hours and minimum wages. Lowell began denouncing capitalists’ “arbitrary and tyrannical way toward the workers,” encouraging workers to form unions, and defending strikes as legitimate. In 1893 she joined Bishop Potter and Felix Adler on CAIL’s Board of Arbitration.

Despite her new insights, Lowell remained committed to the premise that direct aid to the poor was “evil.” Awareness of the structural roots of poverty only deepened her animosity, now reinforced by a conviction that charity handouts allowed employers to underpay workers, thus hindering efforts to attain a living wage. Lowell had, nevertheless, traveled far enough from her earlier stance to declare at an 1895 charities conference that “if the charity organization societies of the country are going to take the position of defenders of the rich against the poor which I do think is the danger which stands before us, then I shall be very sorry that I ever had anything to do with the work.”


In the literary world, too, dissatisfaction with reigning genteel conventions produced some startling defections, none more so than that of William Dean Howells, who until the mid-1880s had been a pillar of authorial propriety, an outsider turned ultimate insider. As a self-educated country boy in rural Ohio, Howells had adulated from afar the literary elite of genteel Boston—Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell—and just after the Civil War he came east to join their ranks. Hired as assistant editor of the prestigious Atlanticmagazine, Howells became its editor by 1871; after a successful decade, he resigned to devote full time to writing novels and critical essays.

Most of Howells’s early work mirrored his Boston Brahmin colleagues’ in its sunny and genial optimism. As late as 1886, in a review of Dostoevsky, Howells invited his fellow novelists “to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American.” As prudish as any of the genteel elite, he was uncomfortable with Zola and “bad French morality” and argued that novels should “make the race better and kinder.” He had, however, become discomfited with the moralizing prettiness of much contemporary fiction and was attracted, like his good friend Henry James, to Turgenev. Making tentative gestures toward “realism,” he began dwelling to an unusual degree on matters of everyday life.

He also began spending more and more time in New York City, where, he wrote his father, there was “more for me to see and learn.” He published much of his new work (like The Rise of Silas Lapham) in the Century and, in 1885, agreed to author a regular “Editor’s Study” column in Harper’s. But it was the events of 1886-87 that converted Howells into a self-conscious renegade from the ranks of the proper. In the latter year he broke ranks with his genteel colleagues to speak out on behalf of the condemned Haymarket anarchists, the only leading American man of letters to do so, and he was subjected to scathing attack and shunned by friends. His interest in social issues ripened, he read Tolstoy, William Morris, and the Fabian socialists and grew increasingly estranged from laissez-faire orthodoxy and “our competitive civilization.” In 1888, at the age of fifty, he left Boston and moved to Manhattan.

After settling in at 330 East 17th Street (just across Stuyvesant Square from St. George’s Episcopal Church and a short walk from the Lower East Side), he began exploring the city by foot and train. Howells was exhilarated by its noisy ebullience. “At the bottom of our wicked hearts,” he wrote James in London, “we all like New York,” and he confided his intention “to use some of its vast, gay, shapeless life in my fiction.” He got his chance almost immediately when his new publisher, J. W. Harper, asked him for “a powerful presentation of the life of our great metropolis, social, educational, economical, political,” one that would treat “the rich & the poor, the idler & the worker,” and “command the interest of all classes.” Howells’s response was A Hazard of New Fortunes, serialized in Harper’s beginning March 2, 1889. Hazard, the first novel to present a fully rendered portrait of the metropolis, was, Howells wrote, the “first fruit of my New York life.”

Hazard broadened the boundaries of the permissible in fiction as Pulitzer’s World had in news. Its panorama of city life included German Marxists, striking workingmen, natural gas millionaires, Christian socialists, advertising experts, and restaurateurs. But the central figures were a genteel middle-class couple—the Howells-like Basil March and his wife Isabel—who throughout the novel, in confrontation with the giant metropolis, come to realize the limits of their genteel worldview.

The Marches, like Howells, move from Boston to New York, where Basil is to work on a new literary magazine. Once ensconced in a Manhattan apartment, the Marches venture out, on foot and elevated, into nongenteel parts of the city—voyages they find “unfailingly entertaining.” In Washington Square and the Lower East Side, they encounter a vast and “picturesque” hive of “nationalities, conditions, and characters.”

Their fascination with metropolitan bustle, however, is a superficial and condescending one, Howells suggests, as if the ragged poverty of Italian immigrants “existed for their appreciation.” Glints of other ways of seeing flit through March’s mind—“he had read that they are worked and fed and housed like beasts”—but like most of respectable society, March didn’t much trouble himself about “what these poor people were thinking, hoping, fearing, enjoying, suffering; just where and how they lived; who and what they individually were.”

The remainder of the novel recounts March’s awakening to social and civic consciousness, an evolution paralleling Howells’s own. He is exposed to Conrad Dryfoos, an Episcopalian social worker (modeled on Father Huntington) who in helping the poor in their tenement houses has provided for the Church a “way back to the early ideals of Christian brotherhood.” March comes to see New York as a “lawless, Godless” society, whose planless “play of energies” yields only a “fierce struggle for survival” in which the stronger preside over “the mutilation, the destruction, the decay, of the weaker.” The novel swirls to a violent denouement—set against a streetcar strike modeled on the real ones of 1886—in which March is forced to acknowledge his connectedness to, and complicity in, a world of which he had hitherto been only a spectator.


The following year saw the arrival of another realistic book dedicated to probing life in New York City, this one the product of Jacob Riis, who had arrived in New York in 1870 as a hopeful twenty-one-year-old Danish immigrant, only to plunge, with the metropolis, into the great depression. Despite his cultivated background and his acquired skills as a carpenter, Riis had lived from job to job, often from hand to mouth. Some nights found him sleeping in the doorways and ashbins of Mulberry Bend and the Five Points. Once he was rolled in a Church Street police station men’s shelter. For a time, with dismal appropriateness, he survived by selling copies of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times door to door.

Finally, in 1877, Riis had landed a position at the New York Tribune, soon becoming its police reporter. For the next eleven years he worked out of an office across from the Mulberry Street Police Headquarters. He wrote Pulitzerian-type pieces on the people of the slums, articles that tugged at readers’ heartstrings, made them smile, taught them moral lessons. But for all his portrayal of the miseries of slum life, and his growing contacts with genteel reform-minded people, Riis—now a self-made man—had little patience with or sympathy for most slum dwellers. In the early 1880s, he publicly hailed Josephine Shaw Lowell’s COS; in an 1883 article about tramps, wrote severely: “As to the man who will not work, let him starve.”

Privately, however, he was coming to think the COS approach harsh, cold, and patronizing and to wonder if collective prevention was not as necessary as individual cures. This rethinking was spurred when, in 1884, he covered Felix Adler’s lectures on the housing crisis, and as the 1880s wore on, Riis’s critiques of urban injustice grew sharper. He wrote a column called “Gotham Doings” for a Wisconsin newspaper in which he wrote mockingly about Mrs. Astor’s Patriarch’s Balls. He expressed admiration for Henry George and published pieces in the United Labor Party campaign newspaper, though in the end he voted for Teddy Roosevelt. He applauded the emergence of the settlement movement. And in 1888, after accompanying a sanitary inspector on a dreadful slum tour, he decided he must present the facts of slum life to a wider audience than Adler had been able to reach. He had seen sights, he wrote, that “gripped my heart until I felt that I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist.”

To reach out more effectively, the new convert to the social gospel seized upon two recent technological developments. In 1885 George Eastman had invented the handheld “detective” camera, which could be carried about in a valise, and some Germans had invented a flashgun that burned magnesium powder, creating a brilliant (if dangerous) flare. Together, the two instruments allowed Riis to take pictures indoors, making it possible to hurl javelins of artificial sunshine into the darkest shadows. He began making nocturnal patrols around the city. Accompanied by the police, he would burst into the haunts of the poor and explode his flash in their faces, then vanish—as he explained to the Sun in 1888—before the photographees “could collect their scattered thoughts.”

The photographs garnered in this fashion broke sharply with genteel pictorial conventions. The predominant images of street children were typified by the sentimental paintings of New York artist J. G. Brown, picturesque portraits of cuddly scrubbed urchins—the subjects often posed in the studio. Riis’s pictures of street children or down-and-out lodgers, in bold contrast, were less image than evidence, very different from the Byron Company’s photographic celebrations of property and from the guidebook photographs that touted city treasures. He got behind the fashionable dwelling fronts to disclose the internal partitions and rear houses installed by rackrenting landlords.

In January 1888 Riis gave a two-hour lecture at the Society of Amateur Photographers, illustrated with a hundred lantern slides of homeless people, street children, and crowded tenements, ending with images of Bellevue Hospital, the New York Morgue, and the pauper graveyard on Hart’s Island. He spoke again in February at the Broadway Tabernacle, and among the deeply impressed audience was the Rev. Parkhurst, who helped Riis to other engagements at churches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jamaica. In May, Lyman Abbott asked him to contribute two articles to the Christian Union.

In 1889 Riis began writing more pieces that played on the theme of two New Yorks, one prosperous and respectable, the other “uneasy, suffering, threatening anarchy and revolt.” He named one such essay in Scribner’s “How the Other Half Lives,” a phrase often used before, notably by Dr. Griscom back in 1845. The following year, he bundled the pieces together into an illustrated book of the same title. Hove the Other Half Lives (1890) was an instant success, so much so that Riis abandoned regular newspaper work and became a free-lance journalist, reformer, and lecturer.

Part of the book’s popularity was fortuitous: it appeared the same year as Ward McCallister’s Society as I Have Found It, which touted the Four Hundred’s opulence and was compared, devastatingly, with Riis’s work by many reviewers. The Other Half also fit neatly into the established sunshine-and-shadow tradition; indeed Riis’s literary strategy came straight from Dickens’s American Notes, one of his favorite books. The narrator offers the reader an armchair guided tour of the underworld.

“Leaving the Elevated Railroad where it dives under the Brooklyn Bridge at Franklin Square,” Riis wrote, “scarce a dozen steps will take you where we wish to go. . . . We have turned the corner from prosperity to poverty.” Suppose we look into a Cherry Street tenement, he continued. “Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there. Not that it would hurt them; kicks and cuffs are their daily diet. They have little else. Here where the hall turns and dives into utter darkness is a step, and another, another. . . . Here is a door. Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail—what do they mean?” (A dying infant, of course). “With half a chance it might have lived but it had none. That dark bedroom killed it.” The slum was death to virtue as well, though Riis was always amazed at finding “sweet and innocent girls” there; he theorized they survived only because “inherent purity revolts instinctively from the naked brutality of vice as seen in the slums.”

To a critical Christianity, Riis married the progressive scientism of photographic proof and statistical data. An Other Halftenement room was never just stiflingly hot; it was 115 degrees. The Elizabeth Street lodging station had enough cubic air space for ten men but crammed in forty-eight. Where sixteen or seventeen people out of every thousand died from cholera in the uptown wards, 195 per thousand so perished in the slums. Over nine thousand homeless young men lodged nightly along Chatham Street and the Bowery, between City Hall and Cooper Union. One of every ten New Yorkers ended up in the potter’s field.

Riis’s book obviously sympathized with the poor, but he never tumbled over into too alarming (or too radical) an identification with his subjects. He remained a detached gentleman, someone with whom genteel readers could identify, and he presented the poor as victims—worthy of pity but not respect. The photographs underlined the distance between guide and local denizen by their flash-and-run quality. Spotlit in the sudden glare, Riis’s subjects tended to register fright and surprise, creating a victimesque aura of helplessness about them. He was far less pleased with daytime shoots of forewarned subjects: smiling at the camera, they appeared at ease in surroundings Riis declared intolerable.

If his photographs were sometimes presumptuous, his prose was often contemptuous. Slum dwellers were “shiftless, destructive, and stupid, in a word they are what the tenements made them.” He accepted the genteel premise that working people were incapable of “aspiration above the mere wants of the body.” The tenement houses, he believed, “have no aesthetic resources. If any are to be brought to bear on them, they must come from the outside.” Fundamental change would require that the immigrants be Americanized, as he had been: the tide of his autobiography would be The Making of an American. One of the worst aspects of the slums was that they slowed this process by encouraging a clannish defensiveness.

When Riis surveyed the Lower East Side neighborhoods—that “queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements”—he often deployed stereotypes or slurs. The Italians were “gay, light-hearted”; African Americans were sensual and superstitious; and as to Russian Jews—who were still “where the new day that dawned on Calvary left them standing, stubbornly refusing to see the light”—“money is their God,” and their attachment to “thrift” was at once the community’s “cardinal virtue and its foul disgrace.” The Chinese “in their very exclusiveness and reserve . . . are a constant and terrible menace to society”: he ridiculed their customs unmercifully, expressing particular horror at white girls’ submission to Chinamen’s lusts. Only one group seemed more threatening, Lincoln Steffens reported, recalling his deeply pious friend’s response when an assistant brought news of a police raid on a resort of fairies. ” ‘Fairies!’ Riis shouted, suspicious. ‘What are fairies?’ And when Max began to define the word Riis rose up in a rage. ‘Not so,’ he cried. ‘There are no such creatures in this world.’ He threw down his pencil and rushed out of the office.”

For all his country man’s recoil from metropolitan cosmopolitanism, Riis had absorbed more than a touch of Henry George’s values and analysis. In the Other Half, he rejected explanations of immigrant viciousness that looked to intemperance or individual moral failings; instead he insisted that environment in general, and bad housing in particular, was the determining factor in their moral fall.

Riis lit into landlords with Georgian fervor. He argued that the horrors they perpetuated “come near to making the name of landlord as odious in New York as it has become in Ireland.” The tenement mess was the “evil offspring of public neglect and private greed.” He called on his genteel readers to help rectify the situation, if not from love of their fellow man, than from fear of him. One of the most striking images in How the Other Half Lives is the account of a poor ragged man standing on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. He builds up a head of rage at the fashionable driving by in their carriages, oblivious to “those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth.” All at once, the man “sprang into the throng and slashed around him with a knife, blindly seeking to kill, to revenge.”

Very much in the vein of the era’s apocalyptic novels, Riis warned the propertied classes that their neglect had bred “a proletariat ready and able to avenge the wrongs of their crowds.” The restless, pent-up multitudes “hold within their clutch the wealth and business of New York, hold them at their mercy in the day of mob-rule and wrath.” “The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements,” he cried, and “if it rise once more, no human power may avail to check it.” How to forestall such an explosion? At points Riis argued in social gospel fashion for rejecting laissez-faire and asserting the public good.

In the end, however, Riis backed away from state-centric proposals and called on the real estate industry itself to remedy the situation. “The greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it.” Landlords must be shown that building better housing for the poor was both the Christian thing to do and in their own economic interest. The safest way forward, Riis argued, was Alfred Tredway White’s proposal that “the intelligent and wealthy portion of the community” provide homes for the working classes.


In large measure, Riis’s reluctance to resort to state power was based on the fact that government was in the grip of Tammany Hall. Many in the social gospel movement shared his conviction—as did the purity crusaders under Parkhurst—that existing city and state administrations were problems, not solutions. By the early 1890s, therefore, both wings of genteel reform seemed equally stymied. There was a widespread readiness to support state initiatives on both moral and economic fronts—even the new American Economic Association (1886) denounced “laissez-faire as an excuse for doing nothing while people starve” and called government “an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress”—but the state seemed out of reach.

In 1891 Walter Vrooman, a reporter for the New York World, urged formation of a Union for Concerted Moral Effort. “Only by union” wrote Vrooman, “can the moral forces of society defend themselves against aggressive evil.” Disparate reformers had to link up—allowing “myriads of hammers” to “strike all at a given signal”—and act together “according to intelligent plan.” It was in this spirit that the City Club was incorporated, in April 1892, to take up the work of Theodore Roosevelt’s all but dormant City Reform Club in pressing for honest, efficient government. City Club trustees included August Belmont, Robert Fulton Cutting, Richard Watson Gilder, John Jacob Astor, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and assorted Roosevelts, Stuyvesants, Jays, Grinnells, and Lows. Over half were in the Social Register, many were Union League, Century, or University club members; and all could afford annual dues stiff enough to maintain a magnificent clubhouse on Fifth Avenue, large enough to accommodate all of the several hundred members.

The City Club also set out to establish more broadly based nuclei throughout the city, around which to mobilize reform strength and disseminate reform ideas. Within two years, there was at least one Good Government Club in nearly every Assembly district. With headquarters and outposts thus established, the forces of Good Government—embracing the moral reform wing under Parkhurst and the social reform wing of social gospelers and settlement workers—were ready to mount a unified campaign to wrest political power from Tammany Hall. In their diversity, Good Government men and women (dubbed “goo-goos” by irreverent opponents) bore remarkable resemblance to the working-class confederation that had rallied around Henry George almost a decade earlier. Unlike George, however, this set of reformers would triumph, thanks in part to their formidable assets but even more to the fact that, at just this juncture, the great economic wheel of fortune took another downturn.

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