Photographs from the Community Service Society Records, 1900-1920

Photography and Scientific Charity > Press, Publicity, and Pedagogy

Since the 1930s, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine have been recognized as the creators of a social documentary tradition in the United States. Yet their photographs have seldom been exhibited alongside the publications, exhibition displays, and lantern-slide lectures in which they first appeared and circulated. Social Forces Visualized displays images by Riis and Hine along with work by other photographers employed by two of the most prominent charity organizations in New York City: the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), founded in 1843, and the New York Charity Organization Society (COS), founded in 1882—today, merged and known as the Community Service Society. Both organizations were part of the much broader “scientific charity” movement, an approach to charity that involved not only helping but also studying the poor. Relying on “friendly visitors,” these charity organizations developed methods of investigation, registration, and supervision of applicants to identify need, coordinate relief, and pursue preventative programs and effective legislation. Their innovative methods were later incorporated into the field of social work, government welfare programs, and the practices of philanthropic organizations. 

In the years leading up to 1900, the overwhelming need caused by the Depression of 1893 along with the hostile attacks in the press made a significant impact on AICP and COS.  Always concerned about public image, both organizations sought new ways, short of resuming public outdoor relief, to meet real suffering and squelch charges that scientific charity was merely cold bureaucracy.  For example, in May of 1899, the COS broke entirely from its original policy and began collecting and distributing relief funds of its own. By 1900, the rhetoric of scientific charity shifted from an emphasis on withholding relief to a concern with providing “adequate relief.” Moreover, both organizations sought to publicize their efforts through published reports, circulars and pamphlets, journals and magazines, newspapers, lectures, exhibition, and advertising.  At annual professional conferences, publicity and press became important subjects for charity and social work professionals. 

Drawing upon the Community Service Society records in the collection of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, this exhibition highlights how the rise of scientific charity and social work coincided with the proliferation of photography and new media at the turn of the twentieth century. Photography became not only an important publicity tool to counter the intense criticisms of these emerging fields, but it served as a pedagogical device for reformers to communicate their methods and findings to other professionals, the “lay public,” and their “clients.” From the late 1880s to the late 1910s, the span covered by Social Forces Visualized, COS and AICP moved from purchasing photographs from individuals like Jacob Riis, and agencies such as Brown Brothers and the Byron Company to hiring “social photographers” like Lewis Hine and Jessie Tarbox Beals for extended projects.  For various projects, the two organizations hung photographs alongside graphs, dioramas, and electromechanical displays of exhibitions; published them as part of proto-sociological surveys, informational pamphlets, and advertisements; and projected them in lantern-slide shows.   Moreover, toward the end of the 1900s, AICP and COS began to shift the target of their publications and exhibitions from a professional audience of social workers to a wider, lay public, and in so doing moved from using photographs as another form of data to relying on them to bolster emotive pleas for assistance.

Organized around four themes—housing reform, health and hygiene, the social survey, and welfare—this exhibition reveals the diverse and evolving practices of scientific charity through work by institutions that would redefine charity and social work and photographers that would redefine social documentary.  Social Forces Visualized will not only open new avenues for academic research, but also will bring to light a period when poverty was made extraordinarily visible, at a time when similar struggles are again all too familiar.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /