Tarbell, Ida (Minerva)

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TARBELL, Ida (Minerva)

Born 5 November 1857, Erie County, Pennsylvania; died 6 January 1944, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Daughter of Franklin S. and Esther McCullough Tarbell

Ida Tarbell grew up in what was then the heartland of America's oil region. As a child, she evinced considerable intellectual curiosity and independence, which her parents (both former teachers) encouraged. The Tarbell family was closely knit and espoused the typical virtues of the early American Dream: hard work, honesty, thrift, and moral good. To the end of her life, she tended to judge all character (of person or corporation) on the basis of its adherence to what she called "the fair and open path." It was this high moral sense that animated her best writing.

An adolescent struggle to reconcile the Holy Writ with scientific fact (she found a solution in theories of evolution) led Tarbell to study biology at Allegheny College, as the sole female in a freshman class of 40. After graduating in 1880, Tarbell took an onerous and poorly paid teaching position with a Poland, Ohio, seminary (like her college, not far from her family home). In 1882 she returned home and soon became a staff member of the Chautauquan, a monthly magazine connected with the Chautauqua movement and its home studies program. Beginning as an editorial secretary, Tarbell advanced during her eight-year employment on the magazine to writer and annotator.

At the age of thirty, Tarbell decided she was "dying of respectability" and gave vent to her need for adventure by quitting her job and going to Paris to write a biography of a French revolutionary, Madame Roland: A Biographical Study (1896).

Despite her own (and others') assessment of her ability as "not a writer but a dead scholar," Tarbell supported herself in France by writing for American magazines. In this manner she was noticed by S. S. McClure, publisher of the fledgling McClure's magazine. Her contribution on Napoleon, in 1894, boosted the magazine's popularity and Tarbell's reputation as a journalist of note. From 1894 until 1906 Tarbell was a writer for McClure's; from 1906 to 1915, for American Magazine. In this 21-year period as a staff writer, Tarbell produced the works which support her journalistic reputation. Almost all resulted from assignments for articles, which later were published separately as books; they are either biographies (not critical or analytical but thoroughly researched) or studies of complex issues (such as the oil corporations or tariffs), which Tarbell could explain in concepts and language understandable to the average person. These studies, however, are not purely objective analyses but reflect the attitudes and values of her background. Tarbell was one of the investigative journalists popular in the early 20th-century who were given the name "muckrakers" by Theodore Roosevelt.

Like many others, Tarbell was profoundly affected by World War I and its alteration of traditional beliefs; this is reflected in her focus, from 1911 until the 1920s, on war and peace and resultant social problems. Her writings after WWI are fewer; in these years, Tarbell was more active as lecturer or delegate to various national and international conferences. She herself considered her postwar writings "musty"-it seems probable she no longer was able to write from the fierce certainties of youth and that the concerns of the reading public had been altered substantially by the war.

Perhaps Tarbell's best writing from the later years of her life is her autobiography, All in the Day's Work (1939), written when she was eighty-two. She relates that at fourteen, she had prayed never to be married; as a college student, she avoided "entangling alliances." The phrase (hers) is telling; throughout her autobiography, Tarbell repeatedly notes her need for independence and freedom—freedom from marriage and from groups, especially the suffragists or other women's groups.

Tarbell was not a feminist; she opposed the woman suffrage movement because she felt suffragists belittled women's contributions to society. As her autobiography, her study of Mme. Roland, and her two treatises on "womanhood"—The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and Ways of Woman (1915)—reveal, she answered "the woman question" with the cliché that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. The home, which Tarbell felt to be a sufficient and necessary sphere in which women could operate, was the most vital unit in a healthy society. Thus she approved patriarchal practices by big business (such as Henry Ford's workers communities) and she herself flourished under the direction of patriarchal males. In fact, the staff at McClure's operated as a family, with Tarbell the laudable "big sister," training younger men to become editors. Her aversion to equally independent and talented women, especially feminists, can be traced to early rebuffs by female suffragists and scientists; recalling these incidents in her autobiography, Tarbell concludes, "men have always been nicer to me than women."

Tarbell deserves recognition, however, for her pioneering role in journalism and especially for her classic study of the oil industry, The History of the Standard Oil Company, a two-volume work first published in 1904 (reissued in one volume, 1963; abridged, by D. Chalmers, 1966). H. H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive, guided Tarbell through selected corporate documents during her two-year research effort, but she consulted other sources, as the massive documentation reveals. The History does not by any means whitewash Standard Oil; Tarbell frankly regards the corporation as guilty of "commercial sin." But she is equally honest in recognizing the genius of John D. Rockefeller: he early understood control of the oil industry depended on control of the transportation of that oil. While he embodied the industry and verve she had been taught to admire, he created the corporate entity she recognized as death to the individual businessman—a clear negation of the American dream. The History of the Standard Oil Company is a landmark in both business and journalism because it represents Standard Oil's first serious attempt at public relations and because it was in the vanguard of serious investigative reporting by American periodicals.

Other Works:

A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1895). Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (1896). The Life of Abraham Lincoln (2 vols., 1900). Napoleon's Addresses (1902). He Knew Lincoln (1907). Father Abraham (1909). Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln (1911). The Tariff in Our Times (1911). New Ideals in Business: An Account of Their Practice and Their Effects upon Men and Profits (1916). The Rising of the Tide: The Story of Sabinsport (1919). In Lincoln's Chair (1920). Boy Scout's Life of Lincoln (1922). He Knew Lincoln, and Other Billy Brown Stories (1922). Peacemakers, Blessed and Otherwise: Observations, Reflections, and Irritations at an International Conference (1922). In the Footsteps of the Lincolns (1922). Life of Elbert H. Gary: The Story of Steel (1925). A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1927). A Reporter for Lincoln: Story of Henry E. Wing, Soldier and Newspaper Man (1927). Owen D. Young: A New Type of Industrial Leader (1932). The Nationalizing of Business, 1878-1898 (Volume 9, A History of American Life series, 1936). Women at Work: A Tour Among Careers (1939).

Ida Tarbell's papers are in the collections of the Reis Library of Allegheny College and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.


Chalmers, D., The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers (1964). Filer, L., Crusaders for American Liberalism (1939). Fleming, A., Ida Tarbell: First of the Muckrakers (1971). Marzolf, M., Up from the Footnote (1977). Tomkins, M., Ida M. Tarbell (1974).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing (1995).

Other references:

American Heritage 21 (April 1970).