About the Collection

The Community Service Society Photographs in the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library

The photographs in the Community Service Society Records are a selection of some of the most significant social-documentary photographs taken in New York City from the 1880s through the 1950s. These images are primarily works commissioned by New York City’s Community Service Society (CSS), formed in 1939 by the merger of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), organized in 1843, and the Charity Organization Society (COS), founded in 1882. They document urban poverty, unsafe tenement housing, inadequate hygiene in public areas, and other pressing social issues in late-19th- and early-20th-century New York. Many were published in Community Service Society periodicals and brochures as a means of exposing urban inequities and working to improve life for the poor. The collection also includes images of social uplift through CSS programs, including at-home medical visits for children, and hobby workshops for the elderly.

The subjects documented in the photographs are men, women and children in environments that include bath houses, tenements, playgrounds, streets, and businesses—people at work and play and in sickness and health. The advocacy that underlay these social documentary photographs led to wide-ranging improvements in housing, nutrition, sanitation, and labor. Among the legacies that the AICP and COS originated and/or promoted are public baths, pure milk laws, model tenements, free school lunch programs, the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Provident Loan Society, and the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Only half of the creators of the CSS photographs have been identified. They include well known and lesser known reformers like Jessie Tarbox Beals, Lewis Hine, Hiram Myers, and Jacob Riis. CSS hired photographers to document social conditions and used those photographs both in lantern slide shows to specialized audiences and in publications that included surveys, pamphlets, articles, and advertisements for broad audiences. The larger Community Service Society Records collection includes these publications; central and district administrative records; committee correspondence and minutes; and files on various programs, including the “friendly visitors” who traveled to the homes of New Yorkers to document their needs.

Eric Thomas Wakin Lehman Curator for American History and Curator of Manuscripts Rare Book & Manuscript Library Columbia University Libraries