A downtown “Morgue” (unlicensed saloon) by Jacob Riis (c. 1890)

The photograph titled “A downtown ‘Morgue’ (unlicensed saloon)” was captured by artist Jacob Riis circa 1890. It depicts an interior scene that appears to be a dimly lit, rough atmosphered saloon. The environment has a low ceiling with exposed beams, cracked plaster, and a generally dilapidated state, indicative of the clandestine operations and lower economic conditions typically associated with unlicensed establishments of the time. There are several men in the room, likely patrons, depicted in various poses that suggest casual and informal interaction.

In the photograph, a man standing in the center is drinking from a mug, wearing a hat and heavy coat, suggesting a colder climate or a poorly heated environment. To his right, another man stands behind a wooden counter, which could be the bar area, holding what seems to be a bottle or a glass, possibly indicating his role as a bartender. Additional men in hats and period-appropriate clothing occupy the foreground and background, engaging with each other or the camera. An exposed light bulb provides some illumination, emphasizing the candid and unrefined qualities that make this image a notable piece of social documentary capturing the essence of daily life in the underbelly of the late 19th-century urban landscape.

Other Photographs from Jacob Riis

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