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This Month in Business History

Ida Tarbell, Author of "History of the Standard Oil Company" was Born

Ida Tarbell. 1905. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Progressive Era was a time of change. Reform-minded journalists, writers, and photographers, the so-called muckraking journalists like Samuel Hopkins Adams and Ida Tarbell, used their skills to delve into their subjects, and popular magazines of the day documented it all.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born November 5, 1857 in Pennsylvania and grew up in the Pennsylvania oil country. She studied biology at Allegheny College and after graduating, became an educator for a few years before returning home and writing for The Chautauquan. After a few years she struck out on her own, moved to Paris where she wrote for several American newspapers, and honed her investigative skills. She started writing freelance pieces for McClure’s and later returned home to work directly for the magazine.

Tarbell wrote many books, such as The Business of Being a Woman, The Tariffs in Our Times, New Ideals in Business, and An Account of Their Practice and Their Effects upon Men and Profits, but the History of the Standard Oil Company stands out. She also wrote her autobiography All in the Day’s Work; An Autobiography where she had this to say about her journalism:

Was it not the duty of those who were called muckrakers to rake up the good earth as well as the noxious? Was there not as much driving force in a good example as in an evil one?1

Her investigation into Standard Oil was originally published as a 19 part series in McClure’s. Her interest in the company dates back to her younger years, which she recounts in her autobiography:

I had been only dimly conscious of what had happened in the decade following—the decade in which the Standard Oil Company had completed its monopoly. It was the effect on the people about me that stirred me, the hate and suspicion and fear that engulfed the community. I had been so deeply stirred by this human tragedy…2

In recounting her work on Standard Oil, she provided some background about the many congressional investigations in the 1870s as well as the investigations by the State of New York in 1888. She also wrote about her information gathering where she chased down hard-to-find documents and her efforts to eventually talk to people at the company. Through the connection between Mark Twain and the publisher of McClure’s, she was able to secure interviews with one of the leaders of the company Henry Rogers (who she seems to have liked and respected), as well as meetings with Henry Flagler and even John D. Rockefeller (neither of whom she seems to have cared for). She continued to interview Rogers for about two years, even after the first of her pieces was published, and those interviews only stopped when his rivalry with F. Augustus Heinze drew more of Rogers’ attention.

In the years after the articles were published, pressure on the company increased. In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States that Standard Oil of New Jersey violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and would be dissolved and split into 34 companies.

Ida Tarbell’s series was part of the story. She is part of American business history. Tarbell went to work with the American Magazine where one of her first assignments was to write a history of the tariff schedules after the Civil War.

She was encouraged by Grover Cleveland’s support and indignation over how the tariff system benefited the trusts, and developed a good professional relationship with him. Much like with her work on Standard Oil, she recounted her research process, which included looking at congressional documents, and interviewing those that were involved in writing the laws and people in various industries. Her work culminated in a series of pieces in the magazine over five years and the book The Tariff in Our Times.

Tarbell had an active life. She wrote about the public transportation system in Chicago, met Jane Addams, was friendly with Mark Twain, corresponded with Teddy Roosevelt, wrote about Abraham Lincoln and a number of business topics, lectured throughout the United States, and supported World War I war efforts. For a time her health suffered, but she continued to work and eventually wrote her autobiography. Ida Tarbell died in January 1944.

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  1. Ida Tarbell, All in the Day’s Work; An Autobiography, (New York, The Macmillan company, 1939) 280.Back to text
  2. Tarbell, 203.Back to text