In today’s Essential History feature, we take a look at the fascinating story behind the woman who was one of the key figures in the efforts to split up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil at the beginning of the 20th century – Ida Tarbell.
Tarbell (1857-1944), who grew up on the oil fields of Pennsylvania, was part of a group of journalists that exposed corrupt business practices in the American Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), the Muckrakers. Tarbell made her first forays into writing after an early career as a teacher for McClure’s magazine, where she wrote biographies on key historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln, before venturing into more contemporary profile articles, where she wrote primarily about the Spanish-American War.
Then, after moving to New York, Tarbell Began publishing a series of 19 articles in McClure’s which would later become a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. The articles were thoroughly researched, with Tarbell going through volumes of public documents, internal memos, court reports and countless other primary sources. The famous exposé praised John D. Rockefeller, the billionaire owner of Standard Oil, which controlled 90% of America’s oil supply, as a businessmen.
However, it also chronicled his corrupt practices which made Standard Oil the biggest company of its time. “They never played fair and that ruined their greatness for me,” Tarbell said about Standard Oil. The series ran for two years before being compiled into a book that set an example for investigative journalism as we know it today.
Tarbell, who grew up in North-Western Pennsylvania, was the only woman in her class to graduate from Allegheny College and completed her Masters Degree in 1883. Unsure of what she wanted to do, Tarbell went on to become a teacher, before returning home after becoming disillusioned with it. She later met Theodore L. Flood, editor of The Chautauquan which allowed her to self-study through home study courses. Eventually, she would write articles for The Chautauquan. However, after a falling out with Flood, she would leave the publication and move to Paris at the age of 34, where she worked and continued her education.
While in France, she supported herself by contributing articles to American publications such as the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the Cincinnati Times-Star, and the Chicago Tribune. Her popular articles were syndicated, which brought her to the attention of McClure’s founder, Samuel McClure, who insisted on hiring Tarbell, saying “This girl can write,” to his partner, John S. Philips. “We need to get her to do some work for our magazine.”
Rockefeller, oil, railroads and trust-busts
John D. Rockefeller grew up in New York and started his first business as a produce salesman, making a fairly large sum of money – he’s said to have made $450,000 in his first year in business and was therefore able to pay off a professional soldier to take his place when he was drafted to fight in the American Civil War. He believed that his business wouldn’t survive without him and it was during the Civil War that he genuinely struck gold (liquid, black gold, that is).
He came to realise that the oil industry, which wasn’t what it is today, was an easy market to get into with very little competition. At the time, the oil industry was remarkably dangerous and marred by accident after accident due to the volatility of extracting it. Many, many people died, lost their homes or were severely injured. Rockefeller designed a process of refining oil that gave him a competitive edge and reduced the risks associated with it. His entry into the oil industry would eventually make him the world’s first billionaire and at the time of his death, he was reportedly worth the equivalent of $340 billion (for comparison, Jeff Bezos’ net worth was calculated to be $187 billion in 2020).
However, Rockefeller’s fortune was not amassed merely as a result of his innovations, but his business practices – and this is where Tarbell took issue.
Tarbell was a fair writer and was meticulous at picking out the details of every practice that she believed immoral and never came across as emotional or someone with a personal vendetta. In short, The History of the Standard Oil Company, detailed Rockefeller’s aggressive expansion and takeover of smaller oil companies in his quest to control the United States’ oil industry. For example, Rockefeller would deliberately sell his product at a lost in order to price out competition and bankrupt them. He also made a deal with railroad companies to transport his oil barrels at reduced rates in exchange for regular, reliable business. Standard Oil appeared infallible, especially considering that they also had politicians in their pockets and any legislation designed to end trusts and corporate corruption was simply dismissed by politicians serving monied interests. Even the Sherman Antitrust Act, signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890 and kickstarted the American Progressive Era was toothless. However, there was one politician who had the integrity to take on the competition stifling businesses of the time.
Theodore Roosevelt is commonly regarded as one of the country’s greatest ever presidents, due to his steadfast commitment to freeing up competition in the commercial enterprises. However, he faced tremendous odds in his quest to carry out his progressive agenda from the earliest days of his political career. After serving in the New York state legislature and as a secretary in the Navy, Roosevelt served as Governor of New York where he began to disrupt the status quo and became a threat to the big businesses that yielded so much power.
Other politicians at the time did everything they could to deter Roosevelt and eventually he was encouraged to be the William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 election, after which he was appointed to the office of Vice President – a position with no real power. Roosevelt’s political rivals intended for him to serve as Vice President and then back whoever would run against him, assuming he ran for the top job after McKinley’s term ended. However, McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 and Roosevelt assumed office, where he planned to use his executive power to break up big businesses and make room for more competition.
He was, however, blocked at every attempt by the bought-and-paid-for politicians that occupied the rest of government… until the game changed, thanks to Ida Tarbell…
Disregarding Ida Tarbell’s remarkable work as an investigator, her detail orientated research, what truly made her work remarkable for the time (other than the fact that she was a working woman in what was very much a man’s world at the time) was that she was able to unpack the complexity behind running a business and how Rockefeller managed to assume almost complete control over the market, how politicians were bribed and how the entire operation was deeply immoral in a way that was understood by the common man.
At the time, education levels weren’t particularly high in the US and most people viewed Rockefeller as just another wealthy businessman.
Her articles and The History of the Standard Oil Company were incredibly popular and widely distributed and understandable to the American people… which enraged them.
As a result, Roosevelt was able to win carry out 44 anti-trust suits before the Northern Securities Company under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (his three predecessors only managed to prosecute 18 violations between them). He was also able to create the United States Department of Commerce and Labor, which would include the Bureau of Corporations, which would control the excesses of big businesses. And, to put it frankly, it’s doubtful that Roosevelt would have been able to carry out this legislation (and win a second terms as president as a consequence), had he not gained public support for his game-changing legislation and governance.
Tarbell and the rest of the muckrakers, without question, shaped public discourse and opinions at the time. They told the truth and exposed injustice in a way that was completely unprecedented. And Tarbell’s expose on Standard Oil, which would later be broken up into smaller entities that we know today, such as BP, Exon Mobil and Chevron, was unquestionably critical to America’s antitrust movement and the Progressive Era.
She later worked as a freelance writer, lecturer and social worker, but will be remembered as a pioneer of modern journalism.
Oddly enough, Ida Tarbell was actually opposed to the Women’s suffrage movement. As an independent woman who had mad such a big impact on the world around her. She was a “feminist by example, not ideology,” Steve Weinberg wrote about her ambiguous views on Women’s Rights. Tarbell appeared to find the Feminist movement to be alienating and anti-male. Rather, she advocated for women to take on more traditional roles in the home (which is speculated to be grounded in a sense of regret that she felt about the way that she carried out her own life).
Tarbell died of pneumonia in January 1944 at the age of 86, four years after publishing her autobiography, All in a Day’s Work, her final book. She will be everlastingly idolised for her scholarly writing style, methods of inquiry and as living proof that the pen is mightier than the sword.
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