Tarbell, Ida Minerva

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Ida Tarbell (18571944) was a biographer and journalist who helped develop the form of journalism known as "muckraking." She exposed the corruption of big businesses, especially those that violated trust laws. She is most famous for contributing to the dissolution of the Standard Oil company, the biggest monopoly of her time.

Ida Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857 in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Her father was a farmer who switched careers with the discovery of oil in Erie County. He established a shop that made wooden oil tanks but was driven out of business by John D. Rockefeller's oil monopoly. Tarbell had a well-adjusted childhood despite this hardship; she was very well educated, graduating from Allegheny College in 1880 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology.

Tarbell never pursued a career in science instead she turned to writing. After teaching for two years at Poland Union Seminary in Ohio she became a staff member of Chautauquan magazine. The publication was dedicated to self-improvement through home study and Tarbell eventually became the paper's managing editor. She left the job in 1891 to study in Paris where she pursued history at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris from 1891 to 1894. To support herself while she was abroad Tarbell wrote articles for magazines in the United States.

Tarbell's writing career took off when she met Samuel S. McClure (18571949), the creator of McClure's, a popular literary magazine. She began writing feature articles on important French figures, including Louis Pasteur (182295) and Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821). Her eight-part series on Napoleon was successful for both Tarbell and the magazine. The series was later published in 1895 as a book called A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and sold more than 100,000 copies.

Upon her return to the United States in 1894 Tarbell joined the staff of McClure's as a writer and associate editor. She wrote a series of articles on Abraham Lincoln (180965), which later became a respected book called The Life of Abraham Lincoln in 1900. McClure then began to restructure the format of the magazine to include contemporary social issues. Tarbell and other writers at McClure's began to write critical articles about important issues of the day such as corporate trusts. The goal of these articles was to expose corruption and the abuses of public power; these articles served as fuel for Progressivism, a reform movement of that time. President Theodore Roosevelt (18581919) was critical of this type of journalism and labeled it "muckraking," a term which stayed with Tarbell for the rest of her career.

Tarbell's main contribution to this literary movement was her History of the Standard Oil Company, which originally appeared in McClure's in 19 installments in 1902 and was published as a book in 1904. Tarbell exposed the workings of John D. Rockefeller's oil monopoly. Her writings contributed to the company's prosecution under anti-trust laws and its eventual breakup in 1911. She claimed that she chose Standard Oil as the subject of her research because "it satisfies most nearly the trust ideal of the entire control of the commodity in which it deals" (History of Standard Oil Company, 1904). However it is no coincidence that Tarbell chose to write about the same monopoly that ran her father out of business. However, Tarbell's work was well researched and highly regarded despite this personal interest.

In 1906 Tarbell and some of her colleagues had a dispute with McClure and left the magazine to own and operate American magazine. Tarbell continued to expose corporate crimes and proclaim the need for honest government. As a result of her work, The Tariff in Our Times (1911), President Woodrow Wilson offered Tarbell a position on the Federal Tariff Commission in 1916. Tarbell refused but later participated in Wilson's Industrial Conference in 1919. She also participated in President Harding's Unemployment Conference in 1925. Another important series in American was on the history of the women's movement in the United States and her views on this subject were later published as The Business of Being a Woman.

American magazine was sold in 1915 and Tarbell spent the rest of her life as a lecturer and freelance writer. She continued writing books about business, but her later works were less critical than earlier ones. Tarbell toured a number of U.S. factories between 1912 and 1915 and was impressed by some of the latest business developments. She was particularly optimistic about the management techniques of Henry Ford. Tarbell also produced two friendly biographies of business leaders called Life of Elbert H. Gary (1923) and Owen D. Young (1932). She also published a history called The Nationalizing of Business: 187898 (1936).

In 1939 Tarbell published her autobiography, All in the Day's Work. She then taught classes in biographical writing and worked as consulting editor of a Tucson magazine called Letter from 1943 to 1944. Tarbell died of pneumonia in 1944.

See also: Henry Ford, Monopolies, Muckrakers, Pennsylvania, John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil, Ida Tarbell, Woodrow Wilson


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

Reitman, Janet. "The Muckraker vs. the Millionaire." Scholastic Update, Teachers' Edition., 131, November 1998.

Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day's Work: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

. More than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell's Lifetime in Journalism. Edited by Robert C. Kochersberger. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Tomkins, Mary E. Ida M. Tarbell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Ray Stannard Baker, personal diary, 1937">

she lives so warmly in the hearts of her friends that they take new courage in a discordant universe; are reestablished in their faith in the human race, learning anew what it can be, at its best.

ray stannard baker, personal diary, 1937

Ida Minerva Tarbell

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Ida Minerva Tarbell

The crusading American journalist Ida Minerva Tarbell (1857-1944) is known as the muckraker who cracked the oil trust. She was also an outstanding biographer of Abraham Lincoln.

Ida Tarbell was born on Nov. 5, 1857, in Erie County, Pa., the daughter of a small oilman driven to the wall by the Rockefeller oil monopoly. Tarbell, unlike many famous people, spent an unusually well-adjusted childhood and had a healthy appreciation of her parents. She wrote of the log house in which she was born and of the pleasant memories it gave her. She felt loved and was perhaps even smug about it.

In Titusville High School, Tarbell led her class and decided never to marry. She took a bachelor of arts degree at Allegheny College in 1880. In 1882 she became a staff member of the Chautauquan newspaper and eventually became its managing editor. Driven by desire for more education, she went to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris from 1891 to 1894, sustaining herself by writing magazine articles. She was with McClure's Magazine from 1894 to 1896, when she became associate editor of the American Magazine; she remained in that post until 1915.

Tarbell's fame for biography rests mainly on her two-volume Life of Abraham Lincoln (1900). However, in Paris she also did studies of Madame de Staël (1894), Napoleon Bonaparte (1895), Madame Roland (1896), Judge Elbert H. Gary (1925), and an "ideal businessman, " Owen D. Young (1932). Eight of her books relate to Lincoln. Nevertheless, when she shifted to Lincolniana, her heart fell, and she told herself, "If you once get into American history …, that will finish France." It did mean the end of great attention to her other projects, her desire to determine the nature of revolutions, and any important contribution to women's rights.

Tarbell is particularly well known for her two-volume History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), first issued as a 19-installment series in McClure's. Despite her reputation as a trustbuster, she came to the defense of American business in her later years. Her book on Young, plus other writings at the time, were expressions of hope and faith in a new kind of businessman. She supported "socialized democracy" and was opposed to left-flank movements, which she said would make people "mere cogs in a machine."

Tarbell died of pneumonia in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 6, 1944. The New York Times noted editorially that "her mind and personality never took age, they simply matured in richness and wisdom."

Further Reading

Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work (1939), is easily the most informative and helpful work relating to her. Harold S. Wilson, McClure's Magazine and the Muckrakers (1970), has extensive biographical and background material on her life and career. See also Cornelius C. Regier, The Era of the Muckrakers (1932), and David Mark Chalmers, The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers (1964). □