Ida Tarbell

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Ida Tarbell
Ida M Tarbell crop.jpg
Portrait taken in 1904
BornIda Minerva Tarbell
(1857-11-05)November 5, 1857
Hatch Hollow, Amity Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania, United States
DiedJanuary 6, 1944(1944-01-06) (aged 86)
Bridgeport, Connecticut, United States
OccupationTeacher, writer and journalist
Notable worksThe History of the Standard Oil Company
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Ida Tarbell
Ida M Tarbell crop.jpg
Portrait taken in 1904
BornIda Minerva Tarbell
(1857-11-05)November 5, 1857
Hatch Hollow, Amity Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania, United States
DiedJanuary 6, 1944(1944-01-06) (aged 86)
Bridgeport, Connecticut, United States
OccupationTeacher, writer and journalist
Notable worksThe History of the Standard Oil Company

Ida Minerva Tarbell (November 5, 1857 – January 6, 1944) was an American teacher, author and journalist. She was one of the leading "muckrakers" of the progressive era. She wrote many notable magazine series and biographies. She is best known for her 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company, which was listed as No. 5 in a 1999 list by New York University of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.[1] She depicted John D. Rockefeller as crabbed, miserly, money-grabbing, and viciously effective at monopolizing the oil trade.

Early life and education[edit]

Tarbell was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on November 5, 1857.[2] She was born in a log cabin that was the home of her maternal grandfather, Walter Raleigh McCullough, a Scots-Irish pioneer.[3] She grew up in the western region of the state, where new oil fields were developed in the 1860s. She was the daughter of Esther Ann (née McCullough) and Franklin Summer Tarbell, a teacher and a joiner by trade,[3] who used his trade to build wooden oil storage tanks. The Tarbells converted to Methodism when Tarbell was a child.[4]

In 1860 Ida's father moved the family to Titusville, Pennsylvania. There he built a house, which was her mother's first home of her own.[3] He later became an oil producer and refiner in Venango County. Her father's business, along with those of many other small businessmen, was adversely affected by the South Improvement Company scheme (circa 1872) between the railroads and larger oil interests. Later, Tarbell would vividly recall this situation in her work, as she accused the leaders of the Standard Oil Company of using unfair tactics to put her father and many small oil companies out of business.[2] The Tarbell's were socially active, and entertained prohibitionists and women's suffragists.[5]

Tarbell graduated at the head of her high school class in Titusville and went on to study at Allegheny College in 1876, where she graduated in 1880, the only woman in her class.


Tarbell began her career as a teacher in Poland, Ohio. She taught two classes each of four subjects, geology, botany, geometry and trigonometry. After two years, she realized teaching was too much for her and that she enjoyed writing more.

Tarbell returned to Pennsylvania, where she met Theodore L. Flood, editor of The Chautauquan, a teaching supplement for home study courses at Chautauqua, New York. She was quick to accept Flood's offer to write for the publication; as she said, “I was glad to be useful, for I had grown up with what was called the Chautauqua movement.” In 1886 she became managing editor. Her duties included proofreading, answering reader questions, providing proper pronunciation of certain words, translating foreign phrases, identifying characters, and defining words. “Doing this job I began to think about facts and reading proofs. It was an exacting job which never ceases to worry me. What if the accent was in the wrong place? What if I brought somebody into the world in the wrong year?”[6]

In 1890 Tarbell moved to Paris to do postgraduate work and write a biography of Madame Roland, the leader of an influential salon during the French Revolution. While in France, she wrote articles for various magazines, catching the eye of publisher Samuel McClure. He offered her the position as editor for the magazine. While working for McClure's Magazine, Tarbell wrote a popular series on Napoleon Bonaparte.

Her 20-part[7] series on Abraham Lincoln doubled the magazine's circulation and was published in a book, giving her a national reputation as a major writer and the leading authority on the slain president. Her research in the backwoods of Kentucky and Illinois uncovered the true story of Lincoln's childhood and youth. She vividly chronicled his rise to the presidency in a series of articles and books, recounting her discoveries to large lecture audiences.

Tarbell was a suffragist and had determined not to marry but to instead pursue a journalistic career. After 1909, her articles and novels about women began to change. The feminism faded as she became an advocate of home life and the family, a position she held until her death.[8]

Influence on the oil industry[edit]

Tarbell in 1904

In 1900 Tarbell began to research the Standard Oil trust with the help of an assistant, John Siddall.[9] Tarbell began her interviews with Henry H. Rogers. They were first introduced through Mark Twain.[10] Rogers had begun his career during the American Civil War in western Pennsylvania oil regions where Tarbell had grown up. In 1902 she conducted detailed interviews with the Standard Oil magnate.

Rogers, wily and normally guarded in matters related to business and finance, may have been under the impression her work was to be complimentary. He was apparently unusually forthcoming. However, Tarbell's interviews with Rogers formed the basis for her negative exposé of the business practices of industrialist John D. Rockefeller and the massive Standard Oil organization. Her investigative journalism series first appeared in a 1903 issue of McClure's Magazine alongside articles by Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker that ushered in the era of muckraking journalism. The series was later published as a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904.

"Tarbell's biggest obstacle, however, was neither her gender nor Rockefeller's opposition. Rather, her biggest obstacle was the craft of journalism as practiced at the turn of the twentieth century. She investigated Standard Oil and Rockefeller by using documents—hundreds of thousands of pages scattered throughout the nation—and then amplified her findings through interviews with the corporation's executives and competitors, government regulators, and academic experts past and present. In other words, she proposed to practice what today is considered investigative reporting, which did not exist in 1900. Indeed, she invented a new form of journalism."[11]

"And then, in an inspirational tale for journalists, Ida Tarbell went to work. Her History of the Standard Oil Company spotlighted Rockefeller's practices and mobilized the public. Readers nationwide awaited each chapter of the story, serialized in 19 installments by McClure's between 1902 and 1904."[12]

Her stories on Standard Oil began in the November 1902 issue of McClure's and lasted for nineteen issues. She was meticulous in detailing Rockefeller's early interest in oil and how the industry began. After the series was over, she wrote a profile of Rockefeller, perhaps the first CEO profile ever, though she never met or even talked to Rockefeller.

Tarbell developed investigative reporting tactics, digging into public documents across the country. Separately, these documents provided individual instances of Standard Oil's strong-arm tactics against rivals, railroad companies and others that got in its way. Organized by Tarbell into a cogent history, they became a damning portrayal of big business. Indeed, a subhead on the cover of Weinberg's book encapsulates it this way: "How a female investigative journalist brought down the world's greatest tycoon and broke up the Standard Oil monopoly."[13]

Tarbell's exposé of Standard Oil was the first corporate coverage of its kind, and it attacked the business operations of Rockefeller, the best-known businessman in the country at the time, even though he had retired from the oil business several years before, and was devoting his time to philanthropy.[13]

Tarbell disliked the muckracker label and wrote an article, "Muckraker or Historian," in which she justified her efforts for exposing the oil trust. She referred to

"this classification of muckraker, which I did not like. All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced."

Death and legacy[edit]

Ida Tarbell died of pneumonia at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut on January 6, 1944, after being in the hospital since December 1943. She was 86.[14]

Tarbell's name has been well remembered in the decades after her death. In 1993, half a century after her death, the Ida Tarbell House was declared a National Historic Landmark. This was followed in 2000 by Tarbell's induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.[15]

On September 14, 2002, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Tarbell as part of a series of four stamps honoring women journalists.[16]



  1. ^ NY Times (March 1, 1999)
  2. ^ a b "American Experience | The Rockefellers | People & Events". Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  3. ^ a b c Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day's Work, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003
  4. ^ Kethleen Brady, Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (New York: Seaview/Putnam, 1984)
  5. ^ Brady
  6. ^ Weinberg, Steve (2008). Taking on the Trust: The epic battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-393-04935-0. 
  7. ^ Judith and William Serrin. Muckraking! The Journalism that Changed America, New York: The New York Press, 2002
  8. ^ Robert Stinson, "Ida M. Tarbell and the Ambiguities of Feminism," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1977) 101#2 pp 217-239.
  9. ^ Judith and William Serrin. Muckraking! The Journalism that Changed America, New York: The New York Press, 2002.
  10. ^ Yergin, Daniel; The Prize page 103; Simon & Schuster; 1991
  11. ^ Steve Weinberg (2008). Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. W.W. Norton & Co. p. xiv. ISBN 978-0-393-04935-0. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly
  14. ^ "Ida M. Tarbell, 86, Dies in Bridgeport". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ "Ida Tarbell Home Page". Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  16. ^ USPS Press Release (September 14, 2002), Four Accomplished Journalists Honored on U.S. Postage Stamps

Books and writings by Ida Tarbell[edit]

Further reading about Tarbell[edit]

External links[edit]

Ida Tarbell Papers Finding Aid, Sophia Smith Collection