Columbia University Libraries/Information Services Launches Community Service Society Photographs Digital Collection


Community Service Society Photographs is an online presentation of almost 1,400 photographs from the Community Service Society Archives at CUL/IS’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML). The photographs are a selection of some of the most significant social documentary images taken in New York City from the 1880s through the 1950s.

“The records of the Community Service Society at RBML are one of our most valuable and frequently consulted collections,” said Michael Ryan, Director of the RBML.  “In the early 20th century, it commissioned some of the most noted photographers of the time to document urban poverty, and those photographs form the basis of this marvelous exhibition.”

The photographs document instances of urban poverty, unsafe tenement housing, inadequate hygiene in public areas, and other pressing social issues in late-19th and early-20th century New York City.  In large part, the photographs were commissioned by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and the Charity Organization Society, which merged to become the New York City Community Service Society (CSS) in 1939.  Photographers include Jessie Tarbox Beals, Lewis Hine, Hiram Myers, Jacob Riis, and many others.

Many images were published in CSS periodicals, brochures, manuals and advertisements as a means of exposing urban inequities and as an effort to improve the quality of 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 rise in social work that these conditions initiated coincided with the emergence of photography as a way of both documenting social problems and spurring reforms to help poor people advance,” said David R. Jones, President and CEO of the CSS. “Indeed, photography and media would help seed a tradition of giving and become an integral part of charitable strategies to assist the poor.”


Subjects documented in the photographs are men, women and children in environments such as bathhouses, tenements, playgrounds, streets, and businesses.  The advocacy for quality of life improvement that prompted these commissions led to wide-ranging improvements in housing, nutrition, sanitation and labor.  Among the legacies initiated or enhanced as a result include free school lunch programs, model tenements, pure milk laws, public bath regulations, the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Provident Loan Society, and the Columbia University School of Social Work.  

“We hope New Yorkers of all walks of life experience this powerful collection, and make the connection between efforts at the turn of the century to assist the poor and contemporary efforts today to create opportunities for low-income New Yorkers and the working poor to rise above,” added Jones.

The larger Community Service Society Archives collection at RBML includes CSS publications, central and district administrative records, committee correspondence and minutes, and files on various social programs.

Community Service Society of New York:  For more than 170 years, the Community Service Society of New York has been the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers and continues to advocate for the economic security of the working poor in the nation’s largest city. They respond to urgent, contemporary challenges with applied research, advocacy, litigation and innovative program models that help the working poor achieve a better quality of life and promote a more prosperous city. For more information visit:

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