Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell

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Ida Tarbell, the daughter of Franklin Summer Tarbell and Esther Ann McCullough, was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania on 5th November 1857. For the first three years of her life she lived in her grandfather's log cabin.

In 1860 the family moved to Titusville, where Franklin Tarbell became an oil producer and refiner in Venango County. "Things were going well in father's business; there was ease such as we had never known, luxuries we had never heard of. Our first Christmas in the new home was celebrated lavishly... This family blossoming was characteristic of the town. Titusville was gay, confident of its future. It was spending money on schools and churches, was building an Opera House where Janauschek soon was to play, Christine Nilsson to sing. More and more fine homes were going up."

Franklin Tarbell was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and she later recorded how her parents cried when they heard of his death: "Father was coming up the hill, mother and I were watching for him. Usually he walked with a brisk step, head up, but now his step was slow, his head dropped. Mother ran to meet him crying, 'Frank, Frank, what is it?' I did not hear the answer ; but I shall always see my mother turning at his words, burying her face in her apron, running into her room sobbing as if her heart would break. And then the house was shut up, and crape was put on all the doors, and I was told that Lincoln was dead."

Ira father's business was destroyed by the large railway and oil companies. This included the Standard Oil Company. "In walking through the world there is a choice for a man to make. He can choose the fair and open path, the path which sound ethics, sound democracy, and the common law prescribe, or choose the secret way by which he can get the better of his fellow man. It was that choice made by powerful men that suddenly confronted the Oil Region. The sly, secret, greedy way won in the end, and bitterness and unhappiness and incalculable ethical deterioration for the country at large came out of that struggle and others like it which were going on all over the country an old struggle with old defeats but never without men willing to make stiff fights for their rights, even if it cost them all they ever hoped to possess." Justin Kaplan has pointed out: "As an independent in Titusville, he and his partner had fallen victim to Standard Oil; the partner shot himself, and Franklin Tarbell went into debt."

Ida was an intelligent student and after leaving Allegheny College, Meadville, she found employment as a teacher at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. Her main desire was to work as a writer and after two years teaching she began working for Theodore Flood, editor of The Chautauquan. Flood quickly realised her talent and in 1886 she was appointed managing editor. A job she did for the next eight years.

In 1891 Tarbell went to Paris and studied at Sorbonne University for three years. Her main areas of interest were the activities of Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein and Marie-Jeanne Roland, two women involved in the French Revolution. While in France she continued to contribute to American newspapers.

Samuel McClure, created McClure's Magazine, an American literary and political magazine, in June 1893. Selling at the low price of 15 cents, this illustrated magazine published the work of leading popular writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. McClure also produced articles about historical figures from the past and commissioned Tarbell to write about Napoleon Bonaparte.

Lincoln Steffens, the editor of the magazine, was so impressed with her work, he recruited her as a staff writer. Tarbell's 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln doubled the magazine's circulation. In 1900 this material was published in a two-volume book, The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Steffens was interested in using McClure's Magazine to campaign against corruption in politics and business. This style of investigative journalism that became known as muckraking.

Tarbell's articles on John D. Rockefeller and how he had achieved a monopoly in refining, transporting and marketing oil appeared in the magazine between November, 1902 and October, 1904. This material was eventually published as a book, History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). Rockefeller responded to these attacks by describing Tarbell as "Miss Tarbarrel". The New York Times commented that "Miss Tarbell's fine analytical powers and gift for popular interpretation stood her in good stead" in the articles that she wrote for the magazine. It is claimed that these articles were partly responsible for the passing of the Clayton Antitrust Act.

In 1906 Tarbell joined with Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William A. White to establish the radical American Magazine. Steffens's biographer, Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974), has argued: "That summer he and his partners celebrated their freedom from McClure's house of bondage, as they now saw it. There was a spirit of picnic and honeymoon about the enterprise; affections, loyalties, professional comradeship had never seemed quite so strong before and never would again. They dealt with each other as equals." Steffens later commented: "We were all to edit a writers' magazine." Articles by Tarbell for the magazine included John D. Rockefeller: A Character Sketch (July, 1907); Roosevelt vs. Rockefeller (December, 1908); The Mysteries and Cruelties of the Tariff (November, 1910) and The Hunt for the Money Trust (May, 1913). She also wrote several books on the role of women including The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Women (1915).

C. C. Regier, the author of The Era of the Muckrakers (1933) has argued that it is possible to tabulate the achievements of investigative journalism by Tarbell and her friends: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; race-track gambling was prohibited; twenty states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; twenty-five states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and the Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."

During this period she held radical political views that she hoped would create a "socialized democracy." However, in the 1930s she became a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tarbell criticised those who retained their socialist faith. She wrote that "communism and socialism treat human beings like mere cogs in a machine."

In her autobiography, All in the Day's Work (1939) Tarbell attempted to distance herself from the left: "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."

Ida Tarbell died of pneumonia in Bridgeport Hospital, Connecticut, on 6th January 1944.

© John Simkin, May 2013

It was the spring of 1865. Father was coming up the hill, mother and I were watching for him. Mother ran to meet him crying, "Frank, Frank, what is it?" I did not hear the answer ; but I shall always see my mother turning at his words, burying her face in her apron, running into her room sobbing as if her heart would break. And then the house was shut up, and crape was put on all the doors, and I was told that Lincoln was dead.

From that time the name spelt tragedy and mystery. Why all this sorrow over a man we had never seen, who did not belong to our world my world? Was there something beyond the circle of hills within which I lived that concerned me? Why, and in what way, did this mysterious outside concern me?

Things were going well in father's business; there was ease such as we had never known, luxuries we had never heard of. More and more fine homes were going up. Its main street had been graded and worked until fine afternoons, winter and summer, it was cleared by four o'clock for the trotting of the fast horses the rich were importing. When New Year's Day came every woman received wine, cakes, salads, cold meats on the table every man went calling. That is, Titusville was taking on metropolitan airs, led by a few citizens who knew New York and its ways, even spoke familiarly of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, both of whom naturally enough had their eye on us. Did not the Erie road from which they at the moment were filling their pockets regard oil as one of its most profitable freights? We were grain for their mill.

There was reason for confidence. In the dozen years since the first well was drilled the Oil Creek Valley had yielded nearly thirty-three million barrels of crude oil. Producing, transporting, refining, marketing, exporting, and by-products had been developed into an organized industry which was now believed to have a splendid future.

Then suddenly this gay, prosperous town received a blow between the eyes. Self-dependent in all but transportation and locally in that through the pipe lines it was rapidly laying to shipping points, it was dependent on the railroads for the carrying of its crude oil to outside refining points and for a shipping
of both crude and refined to the seaboard a rich and steady traffic for which the Oil Region felt the railroads ought to be grateful; but it was the railroads that struck the blow. A few refiners outside the region Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia concocted a marvelous scheme which they had the persuasive power to put over with the railroads, a big scheme by which those in the ring would be able to ship crude and refined oil more cheaply than anybody outside. And then, marvelous invention, they would receive in addition to their advantage a drawback on every barrel of oil shipped by any one not in the group. Those in the South Improvement Company, as the masterpiece was called, were to be rewarded for shipping ; and those not in, to be doubly penalized. Of course it was a secret scheme. The Oil Region did not learn of it until it had actually been put into operation in Cleveland, Ohio, and leaked out. What did it mean to the Oil Region? It meant that the man who produced the oil, and all outside refiners, were entirely at the mercy of this group who, if they would, could make the price of crude oil as well as refined.

But it was a plan which could not survive daylight. As soon as the Oil Region learned of it a wonderful row followed. There were nightly antimonopoly meetings, violent speeches, processions; trains of oil cars loaded for members of the off ending corporation were raided, the oil run on the ground, their buyers turned out of the oil exchanges ; appeals were made to the state legislature, to Congress for an interstate commerce bill, producers and refiners uniting for protection. I remember a night when my father came home with a grim look on his face and told how he with scores of other producers had signed a pledge not to sell to the Cleveland ogre that alone had profited from the scheme a new name, that of the Standard Oil Company, replacing the name South Improvement Company in popular contempt.

There were long days of excitement. Father coming home at night, silent and stern, a sternness even unchanged by his after-dinner cigar which had come to stand in my mind as the sign of his relaxation after a hard day. He no longer told of the funny things he had seen and heard during the day; he no longer played his jew's harp, nor sang to my little sister on the arm of his chair the verses we had all been brought up on...

They would succeed if their control of the railroads continued. He and his fellows felt as the men in the Oil Region did, that the breaking up of the South Improvement Company was a necessity for self-existence. They were as bold in action as in words, for when a little later the president of the Standard Oil Company of Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller (to date, the only beneficiary of the South Improvement Company), sought an interview in New York with Mr. Rogers and his committee he was treated cavalierly and according to the newspapers retreated after a brief reception "looking badly crestfallen".

Out of the long struggle begun as a scrimmage came finally a well developed cooperative movement guaranteeing fair play all around. It was signed by the Standard Oil Company's representative and all the oil-carrying railroads. The railroads indeed were the first to succumb, knowing as they did that what they
were doing was contrary to the common law of the land, and being thundered at as they were by the press and politicians of all the country. "I told Willie not to go into that scheme, said old Commodore Vanderbilt; and Jay Gould whined, "I didn't sign until everybody else had.

Out of the alarm and bitterness and confusion, I gathered from my father's talk a conviction to which I still hold that what had been undertaken was wrong. My father told me it was as if somebody had tried to crowd me off the road. Now I knew very well that, on this road where our little white horse trotted up and down, we had our side, there were rules, you couldn't use the road unless you obeyed those rules, it was not only bad manners but dangerous to attempt to disobey them. The railroads so said my father ran through the valley by the consent of the people; they had given them a right of way. The road on which I trotted was a right of way. One man had the same right as another, but the railroads had given to one something they would not give to another. It was wrong. I sometimes hear learned people arguing that in the days of this historic quarrel everybody took rebates, it was the accepted way. If they had lived in the Oil Region through those days in 1872, they would have realized that, far from being accepted, it was fought tooth and nail. Everybody did not do it. In the nature of the offense everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared give the privilege save under promise of secrecy.

In walking through the world there is a choice for a man to make. The sly, secret, greedy way won in the end, and bitterness and unhappiness and incalculable ethical deterioration for the country at large came out of that struggle and others like it which were going on all over the country an old struggle with old defeats but never without men willing to make stiff fights for their rights, even if it cost them all they ever hoped to possess.

At all events, uncomprehending as I was in that fine fight, there was born in me a hatred of privilege privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy to be sure, but still it was well, at fifteen, to have one definite plank based on things seen and heard, ready for a future platform of social and economic justice if I should ever awake to my need of one. At the moment, however, my reflection did not carry me beyond the wrongness of the privilege which had so upset our world, contradicting as it did the principle of consideration for others which had always been basic in our family and religious teaching. I could not think further in this direction, for now my whole mind was absorbed by the over-whelming discovery that the world was not made in six days of
twenty-four hours each.

In the fall of 1871, while Mr. Rockefeller and his friends were occupied with all these questions certain Pennsylvania refiners, it is not too certain who were occupied with all these questions certain Pennsylvania refiners, it is not too certain who, brought to them a remarkable scheme, the gist of which was to bring together secretly a large enough body of refiners and shippers to compel all the railroads handling oil to give to the company formed special rebates on its oil, and drawbacks on that of others. If they could get such rates, it was evident that those outside of their combination could not compete with them long, and that they would become eventually the only refiners. They could then limit their output to actual demand, and so keep up prices. This done, they could easily persuade the railroads to transport no crude for exportation, so that the foreigners would be forced to buy American refined. They believed that the price of oil thus exported could easily be advanced 50 per cent. The control of the refining interests would also enable them to fix their own price on crude. As they would be the only buyers and sellers, the speculative character of the business would be done away with. In short, the scheme they worked out put the entire oil business in their hands. It looked as simple to put into operation as it was dazzling in its results.

To know every detail of the oil trade, to be able to reach at any moment its remotest point, to control even its weakest factor - this was John D. Rockefeller's ideal of doing business. It seemed to be an intellectual necessity for him to be able to direct the course of any particular gallon of oil from the moment it gushed from the earth until it went into the lamp of a housewife. There must be nothing - nothing in his great machine he did not know to be working right. It was to complete this ideal, to satisfy this necessity, that he undertook, late in the seventies, to organise the oil markets of the world, as he had already organised oil refining and oil transporting. Mr. Rockefeller was driven to this new task of organisation not only by his own curious intellect; he was driven to it by that thing so abhorrent to his mind - competition. If, as he claimed, the oil business belonged to him, and if, as he had announced, he was prepared to refine all the oil that men would consume, it followed as a corollary that the markets of the world belonged to him. In spite of his bold pretensions and his perfect organisation, a few obstinate oil refiners still lived and persisted in doing business. They were a fly in his ointment - a stick in his wonderful wheel. He must get them out; otherwise the Great Purpose would be unrealised. And so, while engaged in organising the world's markets, he incidentally carried on a campaign against those who dared intrude there.

When Mr. Rockefeller began to gather the oil markets into his hands he had a task whose field was literally the world, for already, in 1871, the year before he first appeared as an important factor in the oil trade, refined oil was going into every civilised country of the globe. Of the five and a half million barrels of crude oil produced that year, the world used five millions, over three and a half of which went to foreign lands. This was the market which had been built up in the first ten years of business by the men who had developed the oil territory and invented the processes of refining and transporting, and this was the market, still further developed, of course, that Mr. Rockefeller inherited when he succeeded in corralling the refining and transporting of oil. It was this market he proceeded to organise.

The process of organisation seems to have been natural and highly intelligent. The entire country was buying refined oil for illumination. Many refiners had their own agents out looking for markets; others sold to wholesale dealers, or jobbers, who placed trade with local dealers, usually grocers. Rockefeller's business was to replace independent agents and jobbers by his own employees. The United States was mapped out and agents appointed over these great divisions. Thus, a certain portion of the Southwest - including Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas - the Waters-Pierce Oil Company, of St. Louis, Missouri, had charge of; a portion of the South - including Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi - Chess, Carley and Company, of Louisville, Kentucky, had charge of. These companies in turn divided their territory into sections, and put the subdivisions in the charge of local agents. These local agents had stations where oil was received and stored, and from which they and their salesmen carried on their campaigns. This system, inaugurated in the seventies, has been developed until now the Standard Oil Company of each state has its own marketing department, whose territory is divided and watched over in the above fashion. The entire oil-buying territory of the country is thus covered by local agents reporting to division headquarters. These report in turn to the head of the state marketing department, and his reports go to the general marketing headquarters in New York.

To those who know anything of the way in which Mr. Rockefeller does business, it will go without saying that this marketing department was conducted from the start with the greatest efficiency and economy. Its aim was to make every local station as nearly perfect in its service as it could be. The buyer must receive his oil promptly, in good condition, and of the grade he desired. If a customer complained, the case received prompt attention and the cause was found and corrected. He did not only receive oil; he could have proper lamps and wicks and burners, and directions about using them.

The local stations from which the dealer is served to-day are models of their kind, and one can easily believe they have always been so. Oil, even refined, is a difficult thing to handle without much disagreeable odour and stain, but the local stations of the Standard Oil Company, like its refineries, are kept orderly and clean by a rigid system of inspection. Every two or three months an inspector goes through each station and reports to headquarters on a multitude of details - whether barrels are properly bunged, filled, stencilled, painted, glued; whether tank wagons, buckets, faucets, pipes, are leaking; whether the glue trough is clean, the ground around the tanks dry, the locks in good condition; the horses properly cared for; the weeds cut in the yard. The time the agent gets around in the morning and the time he takes for lunch are reported. The prices he pays for feed for his horses, for coal, for repairs, are noted. In fact, the condition of every local station, at any given period, can be accurately known at marketing headquarters, if desired. All of this tends, of course, to the greatest economy and efficiency in the local agents.

By her own nobel career, and her constant interest in Allegheny, Ida Tarbell unquestionably brought more fame to the College through the years, than any other person. Sharing her success, Allegheny long ago won recognition as "that wonderful little college where first was lighted the flame of truth that burned within a great American." And sixty years after she had been one of its first women students, Miss Tarbell loyally gave Allegheny full credit for the help it had given her; no words written about Allegheny are better reading or more effective publicity than the Allegheny Chapter in her autobiography, All in the Day's Work, published by Macmillan in 1939.

Ida Tarbell was the lone woman to enter Allegheny in the fall of 1876. Coeducation was still an experiment, and there were only four other women students. But by Miss Tarbell's senior year, the girls were at Allegheny to stay, thanks to the erection of the first women's dormitory, growing out of a "coeducation campaign" in which Miss Tarbell herself played an important part.

Throughout her life Miss Tarbell was closely in touch with the College. She earned an M.S. degree in 1883 and was awarded two honorary degrees - L.H.D. in 1909, and LL.D. in 1915. For more than thirty years she was a member of the College board of trustees.

Five years ago Miss Tarbell made her last visit to Allegheny to deliver a series of lectures on "The Writing of Biography." Out of this visit came The Lincoln Room in the Reis Library, continuing a collection built around the fruit of her years of research and writing about Abraham Lincoln.

The story of her collection in the Lincoln Room and the statistics of her career are given on these pages. There is nothing that this publication can add to the tributes which already have appeared in the editorial columns of the leading newspapers. But it can be expressed here how proud Allegheny alumni have been that one from their ranks earned such universal esteem and affection; how proudly they will keep alive st Allegheny the name and tradition and spirit of Allegheny's brilliant daughter.

Her most persistent literary interest was Abraham Lincoln. Latter-day research has added something to the material she was able to gather, but her work in the field will soon be on any small shelf of Lincoln books for countless years to come. She was as honest, as kind, as thoroughly American in the loftiest sense as he was. He would have loved and understood her as she did him.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born on a farm in Erie County, Pa., on Nov. 5, 1857. Her parents were Franklin S. Tarbell and Esther Ann McCullough Tarbell. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania her father became the first manufacturer of wooden oil tanks. The family moved to Rouseville, a village on Oil Creek, and later to Titusville....

Her "History of the Standard Oil," which first appeared in McClure's Magazine in nineteen installments, in 1904, was published in two volumes and drew immediate attention to the author. Her early reputation as a "trust buster" did not last, for she had in a high degree developed a sense of fairness, and this was particularly reflected in her "Life of Judge Gary," in which - contrary to all expectations - she had nothing but praise for Judge Gary.

© John Simkin, April 2013

Ida Tarbell: The History of the Standard Oil Company

Ida Tarbell (Fig. 1) grew up as the daughter of an oil worker in Titusville, Pennsylvania, directly privy to the practices of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, a monolith that she would later accuse of business tactics that put smaller oil companies, including her father’s, out of business, per Wikipedia. Her expose on the company, considered to be one of the first examples of muckraking, was later credited with helping to hasten the breaking-up of the company, which in 1911 was found to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Tarbell’s work starts, however, not with details of the company’s inner workings but with a historical retelling of the birth of the oil industry in America told in third person narrative. She begins with descriptions of the land that oil was first found on, then follows major players in the industry’s growth, such as E.L. Drake (Fig. 2) as they developed a commodity that is integral to our country even today.

As a dramatic retelling of history, based, as we know from the preface, on extensive research from court cases, lawsuits, interviews, and more, the story does not follow traditional narrative in terms of rising action, climax, and denouement. At the same time, however, she does recreate scenes for the reader, allowing them to insert themselves into the time and place rather than simply reading it as an academic tome.

Even from the beginning, she creates vivid descriptions of place, writing how the early lumbermen “cut great swaths of primeval pine and hemlock from its hills” (3). She further creates scene using apt metaphorical language, explaining how “towns elbowed each other for place” in early settlements, using personification to capture the attitude of the time and the vigor of early settlers (3).

Additionally, she uses dramatic language throughout, bringing energy to a potentially dry topic. She utilizes superlatives to heighten her language, such as when she writes, “a more uncertain stream never ran in a bed” (8) and “the whole region arose in a revolt which is scarcely paralleled in the commercial history of the United States” (16).

The world’s first oil boom. Edwin L. Drake’s achievement in bringing in the world’s first commercial oil well in 1859, launched an oil boom in Western Pennsylvania comparable to the California gold rush of 󈧵. Today’s sound conservation practices require orderly spacing of wells. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

As an investigative piece, Tarbell’s work does not easily lend itself to dialogue or extended character development. She does make use of quotes throughout the text, writing, “the region teemed with… men ‘alive to the instant need of things'” (6). However, the reader understands that this is drawn from one of her research texts rather than dialogue specific to one person. Thus unlike writers like Dickens American Notes for General Circulation, she does not have the tools of conversation & the use of taglines to build character and give us a sense of the people and the dialect.

However, she still manages to give us a sense of character, although not in the sense of following a person who develops as the story progresses. We get a glimpse into E.L. Drake’s personality as she writes, “his only qualifications were a dash of pioneer blood and a great persistency in undertakings which interested him” (6). Here, she seems to be recreating character through action and recount peppered with artistic license in extrapolating his personality.

She takes this license again when recreating actions of major players, describing how “[Mr. Bissell] halted to rest in the shade of an awning before a drugstore” (5). Obviously this is not necessarily exactly how the specific event happened, but her license adds engaging action without detracting from historical fact.

Additionally, much of her characterization takes groups and portrays them as singular individuals for dramatic effect. She writes, “the teamster was still the tyrant of the business,” meaning teamsters in general but phrasing it as a singular to give the reader an image of an individual to latch onto. This helps to further the narrative effect of the piece.

The cover of Tarbell’s published story

Tarbell uses structural techniques to make a dense text more accessible to readers. She breaks up the chapter into multiple sections with their own sub-headings. Each section almost stands alone, wrapping up with a conclusion before moving to the next. On page 10, she concludes the “age of the teamster” as one mini-era before moving on to the next section, Making and Marketing a New Product. This is refreshing both content-wise and as a visual break on the physical page.

Her use of graphics accomplishes this effectively as well. Almost every page includes a visual, and there is a mixture of photographs of the important players, maps of the area, and pictures of different oil apparatuses. The style of how the pictures are integrated into the text varies, making each page a different visual experience. Many of the graphics also include extensive captions, giving extra biographical information that adds to the background information without being unnecessarily pedantic in the paragraph itself.

While Tarbell does not yet attack the Standard Oil Company itself, she effectively builds a background that establishes her journalistic credibility and builds a full picture of the context in which the industry arose. This is but the very beginning of an expose that would rock the company itself, help establish a genre of journalism, and place Ida Tarbell in the canon as a significant early female writer.

The fight against John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his business Standard Oil was partly personal for Ida M. Tarbell. Decades before Tarbell began her investigative journalism career, she was a teenager in Western Pennsylvania. Her father was an oilman and moved the family around the state for his job, with the unintended consequence that Tarbell witnessed many burn victims and deaths from explosions and other oil-related incidents. In 1872, the South Improvement Company, which was established to control oil and gas industries, forced Tarbell&rsquos father, among countless others, out of business.

Tarbell wasn&rsquot the best student, but she was very intelligent and often surrounded by her mother&rsquos suffragist friends, although Tarbell herself was not a supporter. It was science that woke Tarbell&rsquos interest in learning and she ended up graduating at the head of her school. As the only female in her class of 41 at Allegheny College, Tarbell studied biology, wrote for the campus women&rsquos literary society, made a scientific discovery about the common mudpuppy, and pushed for the creation of a sophomore stone for her class that read &ldquoEveryone is his/her own hope&rdquo in Latin.

After receiving her masters in 1883, Tarbell served as a teacher for a couple years, but then returned home due to mental and financial exhaustion. It then only took her three years to work her way up to managing editor of the magazine The Chautauquan. While at the magazine, Tarbell wrote an article proving that there were 2,000 women patent owners and that women were capable of becoming inventors. But she also wrote articles in which she encouraged women to enter journalism, yet only if they were not weak and kept tears to themselves.

At the height of the Belle Époque, Tarbell moved to Paris. She admired Impressionist art, attended Can-can dances, hosted a French-English salon, contributed to several American newspapers, and started her first biography of French revolutionary Madame Roland. Hoping to salvage women from the depth of history, Tarbell was upset to learn that Roland was not the independent thinker Tarbell had believed. As she begrudgingly finished the book, Tarbell, began writing freelance for McClure&rsquos Magazine and then moved back to America to take an editorship position with the magazine. Her first big assignment was a seven-part biographical series on Napoleon. It was so popular that it not only increased the magazine&rsquos readership, but it landed Tarbell a publisher for the Roland book. After being told that all had been written about Abraham Lincoln already, Tarbell interviewed hundreds of people who knew the president, met with his son, recovered a lost speech, discovered hundreds of unpublished letters and speeches, and disproved myths. While a competing magazine belittled Tarbell, saying, &ldquoThey got a girl to write the Life of Lincoln,&rdquo McClure&rsquos popularity boomed and Tarbell resolved to be a writer. With five books on Lincoln under her belt and as part-owner of McClure&rsquos, Tarbell rented a Greenwich Village apartment that had strong reminders of her beloved France.

In 1902, Tarbell began her 19-part series for McClure&rsquos, and what would two years later become a bestselling book, that rattled the big business world. &ldquoThe History of the Standard Oil Company&rdquo was one of the first examples of muckraking journalism, which we know today to be investigative journalism, a style that had not previously existed. The negative exposé led to the dissolution of the company as a monopoly and several legislative acts to prevent anticompetitive practices and give the Interstate Commerce Commission power over oil and railroad rates. One of the most damning revelations in the series was the discovery of one last, and thankfully not destroyed, copy of a book, found at the New York Public Library, that verified that Standard Oil had been involved in the South Improvement Company&rsquos illegal scheme that had caused Tarbell&rsquos father to lose his job all those years ago. The articles provoked Rockefeller to refer to Tarbell as &ldquoMiss Tarbarrel&rdquo and one of the businessman&rsquos banks to bluster the magazine to which Tarbell slyly said, &ldquoOf course that makes no difference to me.&rdquo

President Roosevelt gave progressive writers like Tarbell the term muckrakers, but Tarbell believed that &ldquohistorian&rdquo was a more accurate term for her work, as the truth and unbiased reporting mattered most to her. After this attention died down, Tarbell decided to move to and run a 40-acre Connecticut farm named Twin Oaks and continued to write freelance. Her life story would surely imply that Tarbell was a feminist, yet Tarbell often critiqued the Suffrage Movement. While her mother&rsquos fellow suffragists ignored a young Tarbell, her father&rsquos friends paid attention to her. As an adult, Tarbell disliked the militant suffragists, who she viewed as anti-male and even declared that a woman&rsquos place was in the home. But after (white) women won the right to vote in 1920, Tarbell accepted the importance of this achievement and even alluded to the possibility of a female president. Tarbell kept writing, including a novel and a sympathetic series on Mussolini, lecturing, participating in social work, and serving on presidential committees and conferences. She died at 86 in 1944 as she was working on her second autobiography. The legacy of her career and the impact she had on the world of journalism is paramount.


And as the multitudes flocked in to “kick down a well” and gain instant riches, a single man, a single company, was poised to gain economic control of the entire oil industry. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, possessed the financial skills necessary to dominate the fluctuating oil trade. From childhood, he constantly sought economic opportunity. Rockefeller had realized as a boy that he could earn more money lending to his peers at interest than working himself. 6 At age 16, he left for Cleveland alone with a thousand dollars borrowed from his father, at interest. 7 Instead of fighting in the Civil War, Rockefeller found economic good in the bloody battles and sold supplies to the Union army. 8 Before the end of the war, however, he read about the nascent oil industry 9 and found even more money to be made in oil refining, as oil began to replace organic fuels as a lubricant for machines and fuel for kerosene lamps. 10  

Although within the bounds of fact, Tarbell did set a tone and opinion for her series: she firmly believed that Standard Oil’s reduction of competition dramatically raised the price of oil and was thus a crime to the consumer. 57 She forthrightly accused Standard Oil of illegal spying. 58 She detailed all of Rockefeller’s thrifty and moral habits, but then declared, “yet he was willing to strain every nerve to obtain for himself special and unjust privileges from the railroads which were bound to ruin every man in the oil business not sharing with him.” 59 Tarbell was as ruthless in accusing Standard Oil as she was scrupulous in her research. 

The true significance of Tarbell’s methods is evident only when viewed in the context of her times. In an era when
sensationalist journalism ruled as newspapers scrambled to increase subscriptions, Tarbell’s work “is characterized by absolute accuracy of statement. To get the facts she expend[ed] time, money, and energy without stint.” 60 While her contemporaries such as Elbert Hubbard wrote invented conversations of celebrities in subjective terms, Tarbell researched tirelessly. 

Revolutionary in her methods—in that she was a woman engaging herself in direct attack on the world’s first billionaire— Tarbell’s clash with Rockefeller marked an important departure from the Gilded Age’s pure capitalism to the Progressive Era. “In writing about Standard Oil, Tarbell was signaling that the needs and practices of big business no longer were superior to the needs of the people.” 61 She exalted those who tried and failed to gain riches by being part of the oil industry and marked as an enemy Rockefeller, who succeeded in gaining riches by manipulating the oil industries. And just as did Joseph Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in the same period, History of the Standard Oil Company “fired the indignation of middle-aged and middle-class citizens caught up in the rebellious mood of Progressivism. Politicians from statehouse legislators to Teddy Roosevelt at the White House took note of the furor. Its echoes eventually penetrated even the remote chambers of the Supreme Court.” 62  

Yet Rockefeller himself seemed uninterested in responding to Tarbell’s attacks. Elbert Hubbard, an admirer of Rockefeller, describes Standard Oil’s silence: “Up to this time, or until very recently, The Standard Oil Company has declined to answer its assailants. Its managers have been so busy doing things that they have had no time to shake the red rag of wordy warfare.” 63 Others weren’t so kind to Rockefeller. Newspapers across the country carried reviews of Tarbell’s works, and opinions on the legitimacy of Tarbell’s arguments. Eventually, even Hubbard admitted, Standard Oil’s “silence has been construed into a plea of guilt.” 64  

Finally, “smarting under the attacks made upon the Standard Oil Company by Ida M. Tarbell in McClure’s magazine [sic],” Rockefeller commissioned another history of Standard Oil, The Rise and Progress of Standard Oil. 65 Largely a ‘justification’ for each small action of Standard Oil, the book places much of the blame for advantages of rail rebates on the railroads themselves for being somewhat disorganized in early days of operation. 66 In placing blame, this book of praise for Rockefeller also denies that rebates and drawbacks were any great advantage: its author asserted that “certain conservative writers think it was largely the result of discriminations in freight rates, extorted by more or less questionable practices of the railroads” but the true advantage came from Standard Oil’s ability to use these rebates to its advantage. 67  

But as one newspaper of the day noted, The Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company “will hardly have as many readers as Miss Tarbell’s articles on the other side in McClure’s magazine [sic].” 68  Popular media began to overflow with information on the book, generally noting how the publication was further evidence of Rockefeller’s guilt: he deliberately gave a free copy to thousands of religious leaders across the United States. Instead of the response he had hoped for by never mentioning Tarbell in the work, the headlines raged with statements such as “John D. Rockefeller has at last been stung into defense of his business methods.” 69 

Defense of Rockefeller fell to numerous outside sources who believed Tarbell’s allegations against him were illegitimate. Many critics of Tarbell focus on her own entanglement with the independent oil producers: how could she not fight for independent oil producers when she was the child of an independent oil producer and had grown up in the Pennsylvania oil-producing region? One article in the Oil City Derrick, the newspaper of another Pennsylvania oil boom town, charges that Tarbell was simply complaining that her father could not achieve the great wealth of Rockefeller. 70  

Standard Oil’s technically illegal actions and monopoly of the oil industry and the flawed transit system were immediate targets of public anger. Although the Sherman Antitrust Act of� outlawed monopolies such as Standard Oil’s, this law was rarely invoked at Tarbell’s time because it was unclear what defined a trust under the law. Spurred on by Tarbell’s work, the public turned their concerns into action by demanding that the government limit the rights of trusts. For example, an article in the Topeka Capital immediately revealed public reaction to Tarbell’s allegations against Standard Oil: “Miss Ida M. Tarbell’s serial in McClure’s [sic]. has vivisected the Standard Oil monopoly, exposed its innards, elucidated its system and left nobody in doubt that this corporation has been the most successful and conscienceless blood-sucker the world has yet met up with.” The nation seethed with anger that Rockefeller may have lied in court 74 or created a “conspiracy against legitimate industrial efforts.” 75 One reader called the history ‘the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of today,’ 76 emphasizing that the public considered Rockefeller a slaver of the innocent working class. The reaction against Standard Oil’s monopoly eventually reached the Supreme Court with the Standard Oil Co. v. United States case of 1911, which determined that Standard Oil’s monopoly had to be divided. Although Standard Oil was never significantly divided, to the chagrin of Tarbell’s supporters, Tarbell herself insisted that the United States had still made progress in eliminating monopolies such as Standard Oil. As a result, the public recognized that independent oil producers deserved a chance to succeed in the new oil industry. 77 

From Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company and the public’s response to her work, direct investigations of Standard Oil were undertaken by the government. Because of Ida Tarbell and Progressives like her, rights of private corporations were modified by the rights of the general public to know the practices of such a powerful company and to stand a chance in competing against it. 

But ironically the original muckraker of Standard Oil wanted little to do with these warriors against high oil prices. As she was dragged to the front of the Kansas oil battles Tarbell commented: “But here I was—fifty, fagged, and wanting to be let alone while I collected trustworthy information for my articles—dragged to the front as an apostle.” 82 She even issued advice to the Kansans to work on their own oil production rather than focusing on Rockefeller’s, so much so that some of her supporters began to accuse “You have gone over to the Standard!” 83  

But despite Tarbell’s mixed devotion to the Standard Oil Cause, the Kansas movement inspired by her work precipitated a great public response. Urged on by Kansas oilmen’s accusations, the United States government’s Bureau of Corporations commissioned an investigation of Standard Oil that sought to reveal whether practices really did have a significant adverse effect on its competition and consumers. The exhaustive report determined that Standard Oil was keeping oil prices “artificially high at the expense of the consumer” and called for “prosecution of the Standard under the Sherman Antitrust Act.” 84 As the leader of the investigation Herbert Knox Smith reported in a personal letter, “They [Standard Oil] have broken in our honor their historic policy of silence and have finally issued a beautiful statement for their stockholders made up almost entirely of newspaper clippings, and an address on the general importance of my character and capacity which I regret to say seems to strike them as unsatisfactory.” 85  

The public outrage Tarbell’s work effected suddenly created legal trouble for Standard Oil. Under new progressive acts of the courts, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Elkins Act of 1903, Standard Oil was charged in 21 antitrust suits from 1904 to 1906. 86 The 1907 ruling that Standard Oil held a monopoly because of its use of public transportation 87 marked the call for a major restructuring of the American railroad system. It became clear that such monopolies would never cease to dominate until railroads became true public carriers. 88  

Suddenly, the fact that Rockefeller’s status was “the natural result of a commercial struggle for existence” 89 seemed irrelevant when it became clear that other competitors had been unfairly ousted from the industry in the process. The social Darwinism that had led thousands of independent oil producers to vie for a part in the industry gave way to a new morality that these oilmen had a right as Americans to compete in the new industry. 

1 Kathleen Brady, Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989) p. 157
2 Brian Black, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) p. 20
3 Hildegarde Dolson, “Sitting on a Gusher: How Gullible Edwin L. Drake, an Ailing Ex-Railroad Conductor, Brought about America’s First and Gaudiest Oil Boom,” American Heritage (February 1959) pp. 65-78, 68
4 Black, p. 44
5 Ibid., pp. 51-52
6 Virginia Van Der Veer Hamilton, “The Gentlewoman and the Robber Baron,” American Heritage (April 1970) pp. 78 -86, 80
7 William Crane, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power by Daniel Yergin (PBS, [1994]) videorecording
8 Hamilton, p. 80
9 Crane
10 Hamilton, p. 80
11 Oil! The Power of Pennsylvania Petroleum (Commonwealth Media Services, 1998) videorecording
12 Ibid.
13 Crane
14 Hamilton, p. 80
15 Ibid., p. 80
16 Ibid., p. 81
17 Crane
18 Ibid.
19 Hamilton, p. 82
20 Crane
21 Hamilton, p. 81
22 Ibid., p. 81
23 Crane
24 Hamilton, p. 81
25 Crane
26 Ibid.
27 Oil! The Power of Pennsylvania Petroleum
28 Hamilton, p. 82
29 Susan Beates and Margaret Mong, interview by author, personal interview, Titusville, Pennsylvania, 9 March 2006
30 Brady, p. 12
31 Crane
32 Hamilton, p. 81
33 Crane
34 Beates and Mong, interview
35 Elizabeth Lee, “Ida. ” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 10
36 Elbert Hubbard, The Standard Oil Company (East Aurora, New York: Roycrafters, 1910) p. 14
37 Hamilton, p. 80
38 Hubbard, p. 14
39 Beates and Mong, interview
40 Hamilton, p. 80
41 Lee
42 Hamilton, p. 79
43 Ibid., p. 79
44 Lee
45 Ibid.
46 Hamilton, p. 79
47 Beates and Mong, interview
48 Hamilton, p. 78
49 Crane
50 Lee
51 Crane
52 Robert C. Kochersberger, Jr., ed., More Than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell’s Lifetime in Journalism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994) p. xxv
53 Ida M. Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company (New York, Macmillan, 1937) pp. xv-xxiii
54 Ibid., p. 70
55 Ibid., p. 101
56 Black, p. 56
57 [“Effects of Price Control”], New Haven Register Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania. Folder T- I 54b, p. 18
58 Hamilton, p. 82
59 Ibid., pp. 81-82
60 Lee
61 Kochersberger, p. xxv
62 Hamilton, p. 78
63 Hubbard, p. 13
64 Ibid., p. 13
65 “John D. Rockefeller Becomes Angry at His Woman Critic: Resents Attacks Made by Miss Tarbell and Circulates Work Which Commends His Policy,” Topeka Capital Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 5
66 “John D. Rockefeller Angry at Critic: Causes Reply to be Published to Attack by Woman on Standard’s Methods,” Milwaukee Journal Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 3
67 Gilbert Holland Montague, The Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company (New York: Harper, 1902) pp. 1-2
68 [“Review of The Rise and Progress of Standard Oil Company”], Terre Houte Tribune Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 9
69 “John D. Rockefeller Angry At Critic: Causes Reply to be Published to Attack by Woman on Standard’s Methods”
70 [“Cry of Taint”], Oil City Derrick Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-198
71 Brady, p. 140
72 Ibid., p. 140
73 Beates and Mong, interview
74 “More Trust Revelation,” Topeka Capital, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 9
75 “A Story of Monopoly’s Course,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 9
76 Hamilton, p. 83
77 “The Dissolution of the Trust,” Topeka Herald, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 9
78 Hamilton, p. 84
79 Ibid., p. 84
80 Brady, p. 156
81 Hamilton, p. 84
82 Brady, p. 157
83 Ibid., p. 156
84 Hamilton, p. 84
85 Herbert Knox Smith, Letter to Rankin Johnson, 4 September 1907, Rankin Johnson Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives, Pittsburgh
86 Hamilton, p. 85
87 Louis Filler, The Muckrakers (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976)
88 “Books and Book-Makers: Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company,” The Bulletin: San Francisco, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 21
89 Hubbard, p. 9

Beates, Susan, and Margaret Mong, Personal Interview, March 9, 2006
Black, Brian, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000
“Books and Book-Makers: Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company,” The Bulletin: San Francisco Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania. Folder T-154b, p. 21

Brady, Kathleen, Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989

Butterworth, W. E., Black Gold—The Story of Oil New York: Four Winds Press, 1975

[“Cry of Taint”], Oil City Derrick Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-198
“The Dissolution of the Trust,” Topeka Herald Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-1 54b, p. 9
Dolson, Hildegarde, “Sitting on a Gusher: How Gullible Edwin L. Drake, an Ailing Ex-Railroad Conductor, Brought about America’s First and Gaudiest Oil Boom,” American Heritage February 1959, pp. 65-78
[“Effects of price control”], New Haven Register Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 18

Filler, Louis, The Muckrakers University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976
Hamilton, Virginia Van Der Veer, “The Gentlewoman and the Robber Baron,” American Heritage April 1970, pp. 78-86

Hubbard, Elbert, The Standard Oil Company East Aurora, New York: Roycrafters, 1910
“John D. Angry at Critic: Causes Reply to be Published to Attack by Woman on Standard’s Methods,” Milwaukee Journal Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 3

“John D. Rockefeller Becomes Angry at His Woman Critic: Resents Attacks Made by Miss Tarbell and Circulates Work Which Commends His Policy,” Topeka Capital Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, PA, Folder T-154b, p. 5
Kochersberger, Robert C. Jr., ed., More Than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell’s Lifetime in Journalism Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994
Lee, Elizabeth, “Ida. ” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 10

Montague, Gilbert Holland, The Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company New York: Harper, 1902
“More Trust Revelation,” Topeka Capital Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T-154b, p. 9

Oil! The Power of Pennsylvania Petroleum Commonwealth Media Services, 1998, Videorecording Crane, William, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power by Daniel Yergin (PBS, [1994]) Videorecording
[“Review of The Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company”], Terre Houte Tribune Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 9
Smith, Herbert Knox, Letter to Rankin Johnson, 4 Sept. 1907, Rankin Johnson Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives, Pittsburgh

“A Story of Monopoly’s Course,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, Pennsylvania, Folder T- I 54b, p. 12
Tarbell, Ida M., The History of the Standard Oil Company New York: Macmillan, 1937


By the time the Civil War drew to its bloody conclusion in 1865, the oil boom that gripped Pennsylvania had spread throughout the country, speculators creating a countrywide “oil stock company epidemic.” Many got burned.

Like all runs on raw commodities, the oil boom wrought havoc on people and places. Towns would quickly spring up after a gusher came in and then just as quickly expire when the field was exhausted. Adding to the tenuous nature of the local economies was the fundamentally anarchic organization of the infant industry. Few knew what they were doing, the geological and chemical aspects of oil drilling and production were inadequately understood and jealousy and greed ran hand in hand with misery and deception.

Sometimes too many speculators would have adjacent claims on the same field, making any one of their wellhead’s outputs insufficient to warrant their investment, whereas a lesser number might have operated profitably. With many people essentially drawing oil from the same reserve, the impetus was to get as much out as fast as possible, with all that implied in the way of surplus production, spoilage and waste. Even those involved were all-too aware of what was going on, as recorded in Andrew Cone and Walter Johns’ Petrolia , an 1870 history of prior decade of the Pennsylvania oil boom. Commenting on a not untypical 30,000-barrel oil spill in 1863, Oil Region geologist J.F. Carll lamented, “We have reaped this fine harvest of mineral wealth in a most reckless and wasteful manner.”

Wild price swings were the rule in the immature market for petroleum, with erratic demand compounded by the vagaries of the post-war national economy. The Depression of 1866, for instance, led to widespread bankruptcies among area banks, leading that year alone to the abandonment of some 8,000 drilling projects in Pennsylvania alone and putting thousands out of work.

The boomtowns that sprang up each time a rich oil field was struck were nasty places, even at the best of times. In 1865, a correspondent for The Nation called on Pithole City, PA, a classic boomtown that exploded onto the map with the 900,000 barrels of crude the town’s wells served up the previous year. He found it “the sewer city.” Filled with boarding houses, brothels and saloons, it was “a gigantic city of shreds and patches” so-called because of its ad hoc architecture, characteristically cheap and nasty. Pithole City was soon enough a ghost town, but, for a short while, 15,000 people called it home.

Ida Tarbell, whose famous profile of Standard Oil is regarded as one of the great, early examples of muckraking journalism, came upon her interest in the oil giant naturally enough, as she grew up in Titusville. Her father had seen Pithole quickly wither while a resident of nearby Rouseville, PA, where he made his living constructing oil tanks. Ron Chernow in his biography Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. notes that following the crash at Pithole, Tarbell, Sr., bought the Bonta House Hotel, built for $60,000 only a few years earlier, for $600. He used many of its parts to construct the family’s residence in Titusville.

For all the heartache and failure such sudden and profound setbacks implied, the hunt for petroleum and the wealth it might convey was addictive, forging ever on. The emergence of steam power and more sophisticated engines aided extraction and pumping, while new types of drilling rigs, improvements in tools and metallurgy, plus increased use of explosive charges, allowed oilmen to dig deeper and faster.

The dangerous and too often fatal practice of “torpedoing” – firing an explosive charge to open a clogged well or straighten a “crooked” hole – quickly grew in popularity. Done correctly and with safety paramount, it was a costly exercise, leading to the emergence of a thriving, illicit class of men who traveled in the dark with nitroglycerin strapped to their backs. These moonlit torpedo specialists would shoot wells at night, illegally and in violation of common sense rules of safety, in order to avoid the costs of doing it the right way. Doing so would have included the expense of paying for permission to exploit the proven blasting technique devised by Col. Edward A.L. Roberts, a Civil War veteran whose many lawsuits seeking recompense for violations of his patents left him a millionaire when he died in 1881. They also conveyed to him the distinction, at the time of his death, of having been the most litigious man in the history of the United States.

Railroads rose and fell on the strength of their oil carriage income, with the Pennsylvania, New York Central, and Erie railroads gobbling up feeder routes from the fields at a frantic pace. Vicious rate wars ensued between the lines and many of the uncompetitive and monopolistic practices that would be outlawed years later with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and passage of federal anti-trust statutes were devised, fleshed out and practiced every day, with gusto.

The railroads’ battles amongst themselves for the oil industry’s custom are the stuff of legend, but their desired position as the only game in town was not to last long. By 1860, S.F. Karns, an operator in the fields of western Virginia, had already outlined plans to lay a six-inch pipeline from his well at Burning Springs to the railhead at Parkersburg, VA. In the event, however, Karns would not be the first to lay a pipeline he was beaten to it a New Jersey inventor, J.L. Hutchings, who constructed one in Oil City, PA, in 1864.

Pipelines would become more numerous by the year. Larger and more carefully engineering facilities for storing crude oil were constructed. Lest one think this meant the industry was cleaning up its act, or that it had any intention to do so, wells, pipelines, and storage tanks remained notoriously porous, leaking and spilling their contents with the consistency, practically, of the day’s more reliable railroad timetables. And so they would continue, to a greater or lesser extent, through the present day. Market share, haste and the desirability of quick profits have always marked the rules of the oil game. Stewardship of the petroleum resource or, heaven forfend, the environment, though alluded to on rare occasion in 19th century periodicals, were, in practice, simply not on the list of concerns.

The competition between the railroads and pipeline operators, on the other hand, was a matter of fierce interest. One particularly acrimonious fight in the 1880s saw the powerful Standard Oil Co. and the Pennsylvania Railroad come to blows over just such a pipeline. It was one Standard proposed to run from the Pennsylvania oil fields to the ports at Newark, New Jersey, bypassing the Pennsylvania line or, for that matter, any railroad. (The sin of Tom Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad, evidently, was that it had for the nonce thrown its lot in with the smaller oil producers, while Standard, on its way to becoming a legendarily powerful monopoly, was busy making nice with Commodore Vanderbilt’s New York Central and Jay Gould’s Erie railways, which roads didn’t run to Newark.)

In a desperate attempt to stop the completion of Standard’s pipeline, the railroad launched a public campaign, documented by the New York Times , warning the citizenry in alarming, full-page advertisements that the pipeline would inevitably leak and destroy the “fabled” oyster beds of Newark. Awareness of the oil industry’s potentially deleterious impact on the environment is, thus, nearly as old as the industry itself.

No prizes will be awarded for guessing that Standard went ahead and built its pipeline to Newark, with all its presumably negative repercussions for the local populations, human and mollusk. Who today realizes that there ever was such a thing as a Newark oyster? But if the edible bivalve ever was to stage a return to the waters off of modern Newark, whose chemical- and petroleum-rich waters stand as a toxic tribute, at least in part, to the handiwork of Standard Oil, diners would be well advised to a modify the popular aphorism, Don’t ever eat a oyster in a month which doesn’t have the letter “R” in its name. In the case of oysters of Newark, better counsel might be: Never eat a Newark oyster harvested in any month with any letters in its name.

Ida Tarbell - History

Ida M. Tarbell’s name would become synonymous with the term muckraker after publication of her 19-part expose of the business practices of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company that had destroyed her father’s oil business, as well as many other small oil related companies in Pennsylvania’s oil region in the 1870s. Tarbell’s work entitled “The History of The Standard Oil Company” was originally published as a series in McClure’s Magazine and later in book form in 1904. It would become a notable example of investigative journalism, know during the Gilded Age as muckraking, that would lead to the Progressive Era in America, and would exposed the shady business practices, most notably the monopoly, of many of the county’s captains of industry.

Ida Tarbell was born in a log cabin 1857 in Hatch Hollow in Amity Township in southeastern Erie County, Pennsylvania, in 1857. Later, the Tarbell family moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, home of the new oil industry, which began in 1859 with Edwin Drake’s first successful oil well there. Her father, Frank Tarbell, had begun in business building oil storage tanks, then switched to oil production and refining. The family grew prosperous, and Ida was able to attend Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1880.

John D. Rockefeller, the head of The Standard Oil Company based in Cleveland, Ohio, had already begun to build a monopoly over the oil industry buy buying out smaller competitors and forcing many out of business as Standard Oil grew. In 1871, the Cleveland Massacre saw many oil producers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, including Frank Tarbell, face the choice of sell their companies to the young John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil or try to compete and face financial ruin. Thirty years later, Ida Tarbell would write the articles and book that would expose Rockefeller’s practices, but they not totally bring down Standard Oil. In 1911, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered the company broken up into so-called baby Standards. Today, the remnants of the once mighty Standard Oil are still visible in the form of Chevron and ExxonMobile.

Tarbell was one of the most influential muckrakers of the Gilded Age, even though she did not care for the association with the term as she did not consider herself a writer. Her interviews with Standard Oil officials Henry Rogers, arranged by his friend Mark Twain, and Rockefeller’s partner Henry Flagler gave her a great deal of information on Standard Oil’s business practices. It seems the two felt Tarbell was writing a flattering article about the company.

Tarbell did not support the suffrage movement, a growing movement attempting to get the right to vote for women, feeling the movement contradicted her own convictions and refused repeated pleas to endorse the movement.

Ida Tarbell died in Connecticut in 1944 at the age of 86 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville. She will be remembered as the muckraker who took on John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller, despite her efforts, remained one of the richest men in the world until his death in 1937.

Ida Tarbell - History

Published by McClure, Phillips and Co., 1904

Ida Tarbell was a groundbreaking journalist, one of the best known of the so-called “muckrakers,” who exposed deep problems in American society. Working in a field that was dominated by men, she was a true pioneer, not only for women journalist, but for journalism in general. Early in her life she lived in western Pennsylvania, where her father was in the oil business. She discovered that her father was driven out of the business by the activities of the South Improvement Company, in which John D. Rockefeller was heavily involved. When she first started writing a series on Standard Oil for McClure's magazine, she did not set out to write a harsh criticism. Tarbell, however, was a diligent researcher, and the deeper she dug into the documents surrounding Standard Oil, the more she began to realize that his enterprise was wildly destructive. She portrayed Rockefeller as an unethical monopolist who was out for all the money he could earn with his company, regardless of the cost to others. Below is a portion of her work, which was eventually adapted from the McClure's articles into a full-length book.

Note: This excerpt is taken from pages 168-178 of the original work, which was originally published in McClure's magazine, and has been edited for brevity and clarity. —JS

Tarbell’s devastating work provides a vivid account of the rough-and-tumble nature of business around the turn of the century. This excerpt highlights struggles involving John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, independent oil men, and railroads. Note in particular that during the late 19th century, government at all levels, rather than being an instrument to control big business, was instead used by big businesses as a tool with which to bludgeon their opponents. It is worth noting that Standard Oil, not feeling they were doing anything wrong, opened their records to Tarbell's investigation, a decision they no doubt came to regret. The Company was broken up in 1911, though its descendants are alive and well today as the Exxon Corporation.

With Congress in such a temper the oil men felt that there might be some hope of securing the regulation of interstate commerce they had asked for in 1872. The agitation resulted in the presentation in the House of Representatives of the first Interstate Commerce Bill which promised to be effective. The bill was presented by James H. Hopkins of Pittsburgh. In aid of his bill a House investigation was asked. It was soon evident that the Standard was an enemy of this investigation. Now what Mr. Hopkins wanted was to compel the railroads to present their contracts with the Standard Oil Company. The Committee summoned the proper railroad officers and the treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. Of the railroad men, only one appeared, and he refused to answer the questions asked or to furnish the documents demanded. The Standard treasurer refused also to furnish the committee with information. The two principal witnesses of the oil men were E. G. Patterson of Titusville and Frank Rockefeller of Cleveland, a brother of John D. Rockefeller. Mr. Patterson sketched the history of the oil business since the South Improvement Company identified the Standard Oil Company with that organization, and framed the specific complaint of the oil men, as follows: &ldquoThe railroad companies have combined with an organization of individuals known as the Standard Ring they give to that party the sole and entire control of all the petroleum refining interest and petroleum shipping interest in the United States, and consequently place the whole producing interest entirely at their mercy. If they succeed they place the price of refined oil as high as they please. It is simply optional with them how much to give us for what we produce.&rdquo

Frank Rockefeller gave a pretty complete story of the trials of an independent refiner. He declared that at the moment, his concern, the Pioneer Oil Company, was unable to get the same rates as the Standard the freight agent frankly told him that unless he could give the road the same amount of oil to transport that the Standard did, he could not give the rate the Standard enjoyed. Mr. Rockefeller said that in his belief there was a pooling arrangement between the railroads and the Standard and that the rebate given was &ldquodivided up between the Standard Oil Company and the railroad officials.&rdquo He repeatedly declared to the committee that he did not know this to be a positive fact, that he had no proof, but that he believed such was the truth. &hellip

Of course after this controversy the railroads were more obdurate than ever. The railroad men were active in securing the suppression of the investigations, and they soon succeeded not only in doing that but in pigeon-holing for the time Mr. Hopkins's Interstate Commerce Bill.

The oil men began to seek an independent outlet to the sea. The first project to attract attention was the Columbia Conduit Pipe Line, begun by Dr. David Hostetter of Pittsburgh. He had conceived the idea of piping it to Pittsburgh, where he could make a connection with the Baltimore and Ohio road, which up to this time had refused to go into the oil pool. Now at that time the right of eminent domain for pipes had been granted in but eight counties of Western Pennsylvania. Allegheny County, in which Pittsburgh is located, was not included in the eight, a restriction which the oil men attributed rightly, no doubt, to the influence of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the State Legislature. That road could hardly have been expected to allow the pipes to go to Pittsburgh and connect with a rival road if it could help it.

Dr. Hostetter succeeded in buying a right-of-way through the county, however, and laid his pipes within a few miles of the city to a point where he had to pass under a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The spot chosen was the bed of a stream over which the railroad passed by a bridge. Dr. Hostetter claimed he had bought the bed of the run and that the railroad owned simply the right to span the run. He put down his pipes, and the railroad sent a force of armed men to the spot, tore up the pipes, fortified their position and prepared to hold the fort. The oil men came down in a body, and, seizing an opportune moment, got possession of the disputed point. The railroad had thirty of them arrested for riot, but was not able to get them committed it did succeed, however, in preventing the relaying of the pipes, and a long litigation over Dr. Hostetter's right to pass under the road ensued.

Disgusted with this turn of affairs Dr. Hostetter leased the line to three young Independent oil men. Resourceful and determined, they built tank wagons into which the oil from the pipe was run and was carted across the tracks on the public highway, turned into storage tanks and again re-piped and pumped to Pittsburgh. They were soon doing a good business. The fight to get the Columbia Conduit Line into Pittsburgh aroused again the agitation in favor of a free pipe-line bill, and early in 1875 bills were presented in both the Senate and House of the state, and bitter and long fights over them followed. It was charged that the bills were in the interest of Dr. Hostetter. “He wants to transport his other products cheaply,” sneered one opponent! Many petitions for the bill were circulated, but there were even stronger remonstrances, and the source of some of them was suspicious enough for instance, that of the &ldquoPittsburgh refiners representing about one-third of the refining capacity of the Pennsylvania district and nearly one third of the entire capacity now in business.&rdquo As the Pittsburgh refiners were nearly all either owned or leased by the Standard concern, and the few independents had no hope save in a free pipe-line, there seems to be no doubt about the origin of that remonstrance. Although the bills were strongly supported, they were defeated, and the Columbia Conduit Line continued to &ldquobreak bulk&rdquo and cart its oil over the railroad track.

Another route was arranged which for a time promised success. This was to bring crude oil by barges to Pittsburgh, then to carry the refined down the Ohio River to Huntington and thence by the Richmond and Chesapeake road to Richmond. This scheme, started in February, was well under way by May, and &ldquoOn to Richmond!&rdquo was the cry of the independents. Everything possible was done to make this attempt fail. An effort was even made to prevent the barges which came down the Allegheny River from unloading, and this actually succeeded for some time. There seemed to be always some hitch in each one of the channels which the independents tried, some point at which they could be so harassed that the chance of a living freight rate which they had seen was destroyed.

Sometime in April, 1876, the most ambitious project of all was announced&mdasha seaboard pipe-line to be run from the Oil Regions to Baltimore. Up to this time the pipe lines had been used merely to gather the oil and carry it to the railroads. The longest single line in operation was the Columbia Conduit, thirty miles long. The idea of pumping oil over the mountains to the sea was regarded generally as chimerical. To a trained civil engineer it did not, however, present any insuperable obstacles, and in the winter of 1875 [an engineer, General Herman Haupt, was engaged to oversee the project.]

It was not long before the scheme began to attract serious attention. The Eastern papers in particular took it up. The references to it were, as a whole, favorable. It was regarded everywhere as a remarkable undertaking: &ldquoWorthy,&rdquo the New York Graphic said, &ldquoto be coupled with the Brooklyn Bridge, the blowing up of Hell Gate, and the tunneling of the Hudson River.&rdquo It was a tremendous undertaking, for the line would be, when finished, at least 500 miles long, and it would be worked by thirty or more tremendous pumps. On July 25 a meeting was held presenting publicly the reports of General Haupt. The authority and seriousness of the scheme as set forth at this meeting alarmed the railroads. If this seaboard line went through, it was farewell to the railroad-Standard combination. Oil could be shipped to the seaboard by it at a cost of 16-2/3 cents a barrel. All of the interests, little and big, which believed that they would be injured by the success of the line, began an attack.

[The first attacks, directed at General Haupt, who vigorously defended himself in the press, had no merit.]

Under the direction of the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was believed, the Philadelphia papers began to attack the plan. Their claim was that the charters under which the Pennsylvania Transportation Company expected to operate would not allow them to lay such a pipe-line. The opposition became such that the New York papers began to take notice of it. The Derrick on September 16, 1876, copies an article from the New York Bulletin in which it is said that the railroads and the Standard Oil Company, &ldquonow stand in gladiatorial array, with shields poised and sword ready to deal the cut.&rdquo

An opposition began to arise, too, from farmers through whose property an attempt was being made to obtain right of way. In several counties the farmers complained to the secretary of internal affairs, saying that the company had no business to take their property for a pipe-line. One of the common complaints of the farmers&rsquo newspapers was that leakage from the pipes would spoil the springs of water, curdle milk, and burn down barns. The matter assumed such proportions that the secretary referred it to the attorney general for a hearing.

In the meantime the Pennsylvania Transportation Company made the most strenuous efforts to secure the right of way. A large number of men were sent out to talk over the farmers into signing the leases. Hand bills were distributed with an appeal to be generous and to free the oil business from a monopoly that was crushing it. These same circulars told the farmers that a monopoly had hired agents all along the route misrepresenting the facts about their intentions. Mr. Harley, under the excitement of the enterprise and the opposition it aroused, became a public figure, and in October the New York Graphic gave a long interview with him. In this interview Mr. Harley claimed that the pipe-line scheme was gotten up to escape the Standard Oil monopoly. Litigation, he declared, was all his scheme had to fear. &ldquoJohn D. Rockefeller, president of the Standard monopoly,&rdquo he said, &ldquois working against us in the country newspapers, prejudicing the farmers and raising issues in the courts, and seeking also to embroil us with other carrying lines.&rdquo

It was not long, however, before something more serious than the farmers and their complaints got in the way of the Pennsylvania Transportation Company. This was a rumor that the company was financially embarrassed. Their certificates were refused on the market, and in November a receiver was appointed. Different members of the company were arrested for fraud, among them two or three of the best known men in the Oil Regions. The rumors proved only too true. The company had been grossly mismanaged, and the verification of the charges against it put an end to this first scheme for a seaboard pipe-line.

Standard Oil and American Magazine

Ida Tarbell is best known for the two-volume work, originally nineteen articles for McClure's, on John D. Rockefeller and his oil interests, titled "The History of the Standard Oil Company" and published in 1904. The exposé resulted in federal action and, eventually, the breakup of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey under the 1911 Sherman Antitrust Act.

Her father, who had lost his fortune when driven out of business by the Rockefeller company, originally warned her not to write about the company. He feared they would destroy the magazine and that she would lose her job.

From 1906 to 1915, Ida Tarbell joined other writers at the American magazine, where she was a writer, editor, and co-owner. After the magazine was sold in 1915, she hit the lecture circuit and worked as a freelance writer.

Ida Tarbell - History

When Ida Tarbell was a little girl in Hatch Hollow, a small town in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania, a big bully of an oil company muscled its way into town. It put Ida's father and many other men out of business. Ida never forgot. The company's name was Standard Oil. Its owner was the powerful John D. Rockefeller.

Tarbell, the only woman in the Allegheny College graduating class of 1880, moved to Ohio to teach science. That lasted only two years. She wanted to write. She moved to France and wrote a biography of Napoleon. One of her articles caught the eye of publisher Samuel McClure. He hired her and she returned to America. She wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln that doubled the circulation McClure's Magazine .

Her greatest project, however, was a nineteen-part series of articles in McClure's Magazine from 1902-1904 about guess who: John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. Tarbell was the ideal muckraker. She spent two years collecting hard facts and real evidence. She exposed Standard Oil Company 's use of bribery, special favors, bullying, and scare tactics. The series entitled "The History of the Standard Oil Company" prompted the government to investigate Standard Oil. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil was a "conspiracy and was to be dissolved within six months." President Teddy Roosevelt congratulated Tarbell on her work.

Ida Tarbell had become one of the most influential women in America. She continued to write. Surprisingly, as a working woman in the early part of the twentieth century, she opposed woman's suffrage. She believed that women should make their contributions to society in the private sphere. She certainly succeeded in this.

Tarbell, Ida Minerva

Ida Minerva Tarbell was an American journalist and lecturer best known for her work, The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). The History of the Standard Oil Company is one of the most thorough accounts of the rise of the business monopoly and its corrupt practices. She was born November 5, 1857 in Erie Pennsylvania and died January 6, 1944 in Bridgeport, Connecticut (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.).

Tarbell attended Allegheny College and then taught briefly before becoming an editor for The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle in 1883. Then, in 1891, Tarbell left for Paris to study history and wrote articles for American magazines to support herself. In 1894, Tarbell was hired by S.S. McClure, founder of McClure’s Magazine . She wrote her famous piece, The History of the Standard Oil Company as a serial for McClure’s , which contributed to the growing trend of muckraking journalism (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Her inspiration to write about Standard Oil largely stemmed from her family’s involvement in the oil industry and her childhood, having grown up in the oil region of western Pennsylvania. This region was divided into two groups: the monopolistic Standard Oil Company and independent oil drillers, including her father. She believed that Standard Oil was personally responsible for ruining her father’s business (Randolph, 1999).

Tarbell stayed on with McClure’s until 1906, when she became the co-owner and co-editor of American Magazine until 1915. Then, she began lecturer and wrote several biographies. Later, Tarbell served on many governmental committees dedicated to addressing defense and unemployment. Her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work , was published in 1939 (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). This autobiography focused on her career rather than her personal life, indicating not only her pride in her work as something worthwhile, but also her belief in work as a salvation, especially for young women hoping to escape the bonds and expectations of marriage (Tompkins, 1974).

These volumes may also be read through the Internet Archive. Vol. 1 Vol. 2

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Ida Tarbell: American journalist. In Encyclopedia Britannica online . Retrieved from

Randolph, J. D. (1999). A notable Pennsylvanian: Ida Minerva Tarbell, 1857-1944. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 66 (2), 215-241. doi:

Tompkins, M. E. (1974). Ida M. Tarbell . New York, NY: Twayne Publishers.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). Ida Minerva Tarbell: Journalist & muckraker. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

One Reply to &ldquoTarbell, Ida Minerva&rdquo

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Watch the video: Documentary Film Project Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil


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