Tarbell, Ida (1857–1944)

views updated

Tarbell, Ida (1857–1944)

American journalist and editor whose exposé of the Standard Oil Company made her name synonymous with the appellation muckraker. Name variations: (pseudonym) Iderem. Pronunciation: tar-BELL. Born Ida Minerva Tarbell on November 5, 1857, in Hatch Hollow, Erie County, Pennsylvania; died of pneumonia in a hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on January 6, 1944; daughter of Franklin Sumner Tarbell (acarpenter) and Esther Ann (McCullough) Tarbell (a schoolteacher before marriage); Allegheny College, A.B., 1880, M.A., 1883; never married; no children.

Family moved to Rouseville, Cherry Creek Run, Pennsylvania (1860); moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania (1870); became preceptress, Union Seminary, Poland, Ohio; worked as associate editor, The Chautauquan (1883–91); was a student in France at the Sorbonne, Collège de France (1891–94); was an editor on staff and associate editor, McClure's Magazine (1894–1906); was associate editor, The American Magazine (1906–15); was a member of the women's committee, Council on National Defense (1917); was a member of President Woodrow Wilson's Industrial Conference (1919); was a member of President Warren G. Harding's Unemployment Conference (1921); was a member of the National Women's Committee for Mobilization of Human Needs (1933–36); posthumously inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York (autumn 2000).

Selected publications:

A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1895); Madame Roland: A Biographical Study (1896); (with J. McCan Davis) The Early Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1896); The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (1896); The Life of Abraham Lincoln (2 vols., 1900); Napoleon's Addresses (1902); History of the Standard Oil Company (2 vols., 1904); He Knew Lincoln (1907); Father Abraham (1909); The Tariff in Our Times (1911); Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln (1911); The Business of Being a Woman (1912); The Ways of Women (1915); 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 Scouts' Life of Lincoln (1921); Peacemakers—Blessed or Otherwise: Observations, Reflections, and Irritations at an International Conference (1922); He Knew Lincoln, and Other Billy Brown Stories (1924); In the Footsteps of the Lincolns (1924); Life of Judge Gary: The Story of Steel (1925); A Reporter for Lincoln: The Story of Henry E. Wing, Soldier and Newspaperman (1927); Owen D. Young—A New Type of Industrial Leader (1932); The Nationalizing of Business, 1878–1898 (1936); Women at Work: A Tour Among Careers (1939); All in a Day's Work: An Autobiography (1939).

At age 43, Ida Tarbell was one of the most successful magazine writers in America. The author of well-received biographies of Napoleon and Lincoln, in the year 1901 she was running the editorial desk of McClure's Magazine, a leading monthly. Late that September, she journeyed to Europe on a special mission: to convince the journal's founder, Samuel Sidney McClure, of the need for a series of articles on John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. By then, Standard was the greatest oil conglomerate in the world, refining nearly 85% of the nation's crude oil, owning nearly 40,000 miles of pipeline, manufacturing over 86% of America's illuminating oil, and controlling the prices of the many varieties of petroleum.

McClure jumped at Tarbell's offer. Possessing an almost uncanny insight as to what most concerned his fellow citizens, "S.S."—as he always signed his name—knew that Americans were extremely disturbed about the new phenomenon of monopoly, popularly known as "the trust." Moreover, it was his own editor Tarbell, or as she signed herself "Iderem," who appeared so uniquely qualified to tell its tale. She had grown up in what was called the Oil Region of western Pennsylvania; she had lived only a few miles from the site where the first well was drilled; she had personally known most of Standard's earliest foes; her brother was currently an executive for Pure Oil, one of the few companies that had escaped Standard control; her father had made the very barrels used to contain the flow from the earliest gushes. It was a story, notes McClure biographer Peter Lyon, she could write "straight out of her gut."

Upon her return to America, Tarbell immediately started work. "I dream of the octopus by night and think of nothing else by day," she said. More than one person warned her, "Go ahead, and they will get you in the end." Her own father cautioned, "Don't do it, Ida—they will ruin the magazine." Yet, remaining undaunted, she was befriended by Standard vice president Henry H. Rogers, who had known her father in the early Pennsylvania days and who let her interview him frequently but secretly at Standard's New York headquarters. In the course of her research, she heard many reports of illegal railroad rebates made to Standard, but the "smoking gun" only appeared when a young Rockefeller employee confessed that he had been ordered to burn incriminating documents every month. Moreover, one embittered brother of John D.'s, Frank Rockefeller, covertly turned over papers he believed damning.

With the help of her research assistant John M. Siddell, Tarbell literally stalked John D. himself. Catching the 66-year-old executive at a Sunday service in Cleveland's Euclid Avenue Baptist Church, she noted: "There was an awful age in his face—the oldest man I had ever seen, I thought, but what power!" All in all, with his

"lipless mouth," "blank eyes," and head "swept of hair," "there was something indescribably repulsive about him."

Tarbell's first article, appearing in November 1902, was a bombshell, launching the most sensational serial ever to appear in an American magazine. The subsequent 18 issues of McClure's were equally provocative. Tarbell never denied what she called "the true greatness" of Standard Oil and would use such phrases as "perfection of organization," "ability and daring," "extraordinary intelligence and lucidity." Standard, she said, "was the most perfect business machine ever devised." But in general, her tale was a sordid one, full of ciphers, spies, arson, and kickbacks of all sorts, and some material was later shown to be exaggerated or fake. In fact, Tarbell biographer Mary E. Tompkins goes so far as to suggest that the means she used were "as questionable in journalism as were those she accused the Standard Oil Company of using in business." Tarbell later conceded: "The more intimately I went into the subject, the more hateful it became to me. No achievement on earth could justify those methods, I felt."

At one point, McClure wrote Tarbell, "You are today generally the most famous woman in America. You have achieved a great distinction. People universally speak of you with such a reverence that I am getting afraid of you." Commented Finley Peter Dunne's saloon-keeping Mr. Dooley, "Iderem's a lady but she has the punch!" Soon settlement organizer Jane Addams was the only woman in America whose public stature equalled hers.

John D. Rockefeller">

Not a word. Not a word about that misguided woman.

—John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller privately referred to Tarbell as "that misguided woman" or, more flippantly, as "Ida Tarbarrel," but publicly the richest man in the nation presented a bold front. He told a reporter:

All without foundations. The idea of the Standard forcing anyone to sell his refinery is absurd. The refineries wanted to sell to us, and nobody that has sold or worked with us but has made money, is glad he did so.

Tarbell's articles and her two-volume book, A History of the Standard Oil Company (1911), spelled disaster for the firm. Her findings were the object-lesson for many an editorial or sermon. In the West, where suspicions of Standard were particularly high, her name was a household word, and in Tulsa she was paraded through the streets as the "Joan of Arc of the oil industry." A letter addressed to one "Ida M. Tarbell, Rockefeller Station, Hades" reached her promptly. According to the New York World, her work "gives us the same insight into the nature of trusts in general that the medical student gains of cancers from a scientific description of a typical case."

In May 1911, the Supreme Court gave the corporation six months to dissolve itself. Tarbell found the ruling a hollow one, for the 38 component parts of Standard maintained informal agreements and Rockefeller had not been sent to jail. The decision was significant, however, for now competitors had an even chance. Late in her life, a young historian asked her: "If you could rewrite your book today, what would you change?" "Not one word, young man, not one word," was the reply.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, in a log farmhouse in Hatch Hollow, Erie County, Pennsylvania; it belonged to her mother's parents. Her mother Esther McCullough Tarbell had been a schoolteacher before marriage. Her father Franklin Sumner Tarbell briefly homesteaded in Taylor County, Iowa, but was forced by the Panic of 1857 to return by foot to his native Pennsylvania, where he settled in Cherry Run. Teacher, farmer, carpenter—Franklin had been all of these. When, in 1859, oil was located near Titusville, Franklin took advantage of the discovery to establish the firm of Tarbell's Tanks, which employed scores of laborers and built wooden tanks holding 500 barrels of oil each. Ida's first real hometown was Rouseville, a dirty, violent settlement that combined the spirit of the California gold rush and the ethos of the Wild West. One observer remarked of the area, "Men think of oil, talk of oil, dream oil!" Living in a shanty close to her father's shop, Tarbell recalled that:

All about us rose derricks, enginehouses and tanks; the earth about them was streaked and damp with the dumpings of the pumps, which brought up regularly the sand and clay and rock through which the drill had made its way. If oil was found, if the well flowed, every tree, every shrub, every bit of grass in the vicinity was coated with black grease and left to die. Tar and oil stained everything.

When oil was discovered at Pithole, ten miles from Rouseville, she recalled a "motley procession" of drifters traveling "on foot or horseback up the Valley of Cherry Run in full view from our house." In 1870, Franklin, by then a wealthy man, moved to Titusville, where he shifted an entire hotel from Pithole and turned it into the family mansion. Yet the oil producers soon felt themselves at the mercy of a strange new combine, the Rockefeller-controlled South Improvement Company, which made secret and illegal contracts with the Pennsylvania, New York Central, and Erie railroads. Franklin's fortunes fluctuated constantly, and the Tarbell household was suddenly filled with a tension young Ida never forgot. Later on, South Improvement drove Franklin's partner to suicide and Franklin had to assume the man's debts. Ida later wrote, "There was born in me a hatred of privilege—privilege of any sort."

Tarbell grew up in an intensely Methodist family, and even before adolescence, she "went forward" to be saved at an annual revival. However, she soon felt hypocritical about the matter, finding her conversion more a matter of prudence than piety. She also resolved never to wed, later summarizing her feeling by saying, "It would interfere with my plan; it would fetter my freedom…. When I was fourteen I was praying to God on my knees to keep me from marriage."

In 1876, after attending local public schools, Tarbell enrolled in Allegheny College in nearby Meadville. The only woman in her class of 40, she received her A.B. in 1880 and a master's degree three years later. The college turned her into what she called a "pantheistic evolutionist." Majoring in biology, she found Darwin's teachings the key to all creation.

Upon graduation, Tarbell taught at Union Seminary of Poland, Ohio. Her salary: $500 a year. Her tasks: the teaching of two classes each of Greek, Latin, French, and German, plus English, mathematics, geology, botany, geometry, and trigonometry. "It was a killing schedule for one person," she afterwards reported, and she resigned after two years.

From 1883 to 1891, Tarbell served on The Chautauquan magazine, published in Meadville as a correspondence school journal sponsored by the famous lecture movement located in Chautauqua, New York. Working up to 16 hours a day, she was coeditor in reality, though not in title. Possessing a circulation of 50,000, The Chautauquan supported such reformist causes as the eight-hour day, temperance, and the Knights of Labor. By this time, the budding journalist was over six feet tall, slim in figure, possessing long dark hair and clear eyes and bearing a wistful smile.

In 1891, Tarbell moved to Paris. She claimed she was "dying of respectability," but quite possibly she was smarting over the lack of promotion. Furthermore, she had long been fascinated by the role of women in the French Revolution, Madame Roland in particular. Living modestly in the Latin Quarter and eating sparsely, she enrolled at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France while continuing her research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. To meet expenses, she would occasionally write articles on French life for such highly respected American periodicals as Scribner's.

In 1892, a Tarbell article on the paving of Paris came to the attention of S.S. McClure. "This girl can write," he said, and he made a point of stopping at her quarters in Paris. Soon she was interviewing Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and Louis Pasteur—all for S.S.'s magazine.

In 1894, Tarbell moved to New York, there to work in McClure's editorial offices. Noting how obsessed the American public had become with Napoleon, S.S. asked her to supply the accompanying text to a famous collection of Napoleon prints owned by Gardiner Green Hubbard, a rich Bonaparte aficionado of Washington, D.C. Produced "on the gallop" within six weeks, her series was so successful that it became her first book: A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1895). If the volume were a bit episodic, jumping from one topic to another, it nonetheless gave a lively and accurate picture. A year later, her life of Madame Roland was published. It portrayed the stormy French revolutionary, who ended up on the guillotine, as motivated solely by love, thereby neglecting Roland's personal ambition, restless brilliance, and thirst for power.

McClure then shifted Tarbell's interest to Abraham Lincoln, a figure with whom S.S. was so enamored that he practically turned his editorial offices into a Lincoln research bureau. He issued a public appeal for Lincoln material, counting on Tarbell to track down the hundreds of replies to his request. At first Tarbell, whose heart still lay with the French Revolution, was unenthusiastic. "Out with you," he said to his star reporter. "Look, see, report." In 1895, she commenced four years of painstaking research in Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington. Lincoln biographer and former aide John G. Nicolay pooh-poohed her efforts, telling her outright, "You are invading my field." Yet her series on Lincoln's early life drove up McClure's circulation markedly, making it one of the nation's most important monthlies.

When, in 1900, her general Lincoln biography was published, she had gathered over 300 unpublished speeches and letters for the volume's appendix. She also was ghostwriter for the Civil War "recollections" of Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun and once assistant to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Another project involved working on the memoirs of Carl Schurz from 1896 until the death of the politico in 1906.

Tarbell retained her interest in Lincoln throughout her entire life, eventually producing some ten books, including several for children. Sometimes she gullibly accepted fake claims, as when she argued that Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks , was not born illegitimate. Sometimes she willingly went along with what was generally considered a legend, as when she supported the supposed romance of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge . She made a real contribution, however, in stressing the positive side of Lincoln's frontier background and in uncovering innumerable facts. Lincoln biographer Benjamin P. Thomas called Tarbell "the pioneer scientific investigator" and Carl Sandburg praised her as the foremost Lincoln trailblazer.

Real fame came, however, with her exposé of Standard Oil, and ever after her name was associated with muckraking. In 1903, she—along with McClure's staffers Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker—absolutely dominated American muckraking. She challenged President Theodore Roosevelt's comparison of her school of journalism with "the man with the muckrake" as described in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The Bunyan figure, she claimed, was really raking in riches and was therefore one of the "malefactors of great wealth" whom Roosevelt himself had attacked. By then, writes Tarbell biographer Kathleen Brady , she had long been "the goddess of the Olympus which was McClure's Magazine" and S.S.'s most trusted ally.

Despite her own good fortune, Tarbell became increasingly disturbed by S.S.'s long stays overseas, personal philandering, and business schemes so wild that they included banks, life insurance companies, and a housing concern to be called "McClure's Ideal Settlement." Hence, in 1906, she joined with McClure's staffers John Phillips, Steffens, and Baker to purchase The American Magazine, which she helped staff until 1915. When S.S. heard the news, he mourned, "And you, too, Ida Tarbell." Although The American assumed a muckraking stance, it lacked the bite and liveliness of McClure's.

High on Tarbell's agenda was a series of articles, then a book, advocating lower tariffs. Personally advised by former president Grover Cleveland, she thought that low duties would reduce the power of monopoly. Checking every congressional debate and rate schedule, she turned a dull topic into a lively one. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson was so impressed with her work that he asked her to serve on the Tariff Commission he established in 1916. Tarbell declined the offer, pleading lack of administrative experience, the inherent weakness of any such body, and her desire to remain in journalism.

Though bitterly hostile to Standard Oil, Tarbell was by no means an enemy of big business per se. Believing that the muckraking movement was more concerned with magazine circulation than what she called "the passion for facts," she wanted to inform the public that "there were leaders in practically every industry who regarded it not only as sound ethics but as sound economics to improve the lot of the worker." From 1912 to 1916, she spent the bulk of her time visiting factories throughout the nation. "I never saw a machine I did not want to run," she said. Espousing welfare capitalism, which she found "the Golden Rule in industry," she quickly became an advocate of Taylorism, that is, the "scientific management" techniques of Frederick W. Taylor, and of the industrial paternalism of Henry Ford. Her life of Judge Elbert H. Gary, board chair of United States Steel, was sheer eulogy. She presented U.S Steel as a "good trust," one which thought enough of its employees to design a stock-purchasing plan. Judge Gary had held workers to a 12-hour day and a 24-hour shift every fortnight and he was a strong foe of collective bargaining. In Tarbell's eyes, however, he epitomized "industrial statesmanship," and she even praised him for eliminating competition in the steel industry. Another eulogistic life, this one of Owen D. Young, portrayed her subject in such glowing terms that the board chair of General Electric appeared downright Lincolnesque in stature. When, in 1923, Survey magazine asked about the postwar views of prewar radicals, Tarbell denied ever having been a reformer at all.

In 1911, the publishers of The American Magazine sold control of their struggling venture to Crowell publishing, and most of the McClure's veterans disbanded. In 1915, Tarbell returned to freelance writing and professional lecturing, occupying herself in the latter vocation until 1922. By then in her 60s, she withstood a grueling schedule that sometimes involved Chatauqua speaking seven days a week, each time in a different city. The fact that she was showing the first signs of Parkinson's disease made life no easier.

Due to the influence of Stanford president David Starr Jordan, Tarbell had hoped to promote the peace movement, but as early as 1914 she foresaw full-scale United States participation in World War I. In April 1917, President Wilson appointed her to the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense, where her particular focus lay in food conservation. She also served on the nation's wartime propaganda agency, George Creel's Committee on Public Information. Her one effort at writing a novel, Rising of the Tide (1919), was a failure. Although she could capture well the atmosphere of a small Midwestern town at war, she was weak at characterization, dialogue, and plot. After visiting the battle sites of the Great War for Red Cross Magazine, she returned as a crusader for U.S. membership in the League of Nations. At the same time, she rightly feared that the Paris Peace Conference, which she personally had attended, guaranteed a new global conflict. Upon hearing the terms presented to the Germans, she took to her bed and wept.

Unlike many reformist women, Tarbell saw suffrage as a peripheral issue. She wrote:

The central fact of a woman's life, Nature's reason for her, is the child, his bearing and rearing. There is no escape from the divine order that her life must be built around this constraint, duty, or privilege, as she may please to consider it.

Furthermore, so she believed, competition with men directed women away from their vital most task, that of preserving domestic values, and the contest added to the breakdown of family life originally created by the industrial revolution. She later noted that her book The Business of Being a Woman (1912), in which she articulated such ideas, was "like a red flag to many of my militant friends." Additional Tarbell comments, such as the claim that women lacked the vision to attain greatness, led to a special opposition rally held in April 1912 at New York's Metropolitan Temple. Suffrage leader Anna Howard Shaw , settlement worker Florence Kelley , and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman all voiced their displeasure. A while later, Jane Addams said, "There is some limitation to Ida Tarbell's mind," a comment that stung deeply.

Even in her 60s, Tarbell continued writing. In 1926, she offered McCall's readers an uncritical account of the Florida land boom. The same year, she reported for McCall's on Italy's new fascist regime. All about her, she found "rhythmic labor," "steady balance," and "orderly action." Impressed by dictator Benito Mussolini, whom she interviewed, she praised the sense of moral uplift she saw in his "world of work," though she predicted that one day he might overreach himself. She supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's social security legislation, anti-speculation laws, and opposition to prohibition but found much of the New Deal too chaotic. As she said in 1939, on the topic of making the world better:

I see no more promising path than each person sticking to the work which comes his way…. If the need for the moment is digging a ditch or washing the dishes, that is the greatest thing in the world for the moment…. It is by following this natural path that new and broader paths open to us.

In 1936, she contributed a volume on Gilded Age industrial life to the distinguished History of American Life series, edited by historians Arthur M. Schlesinger and Dixon Ryan Fox. She offered a highly competent survey and her introduction was particularly colorful.

Although Tarbell was accused of betraying her old ideas by her work on Gary, Young, and Mussolini, in reality she was always consistent. As noted by historian Otis Graham, Jr., and detected by colleague Lincoln Steffens decades earlier, she had always been fundamentally a conservative, whose admiration for titans of industry even predated her muckraking days. When she wrote in 1935 that America's hope lay in "discipline and the education of the individual to self-control and right doing," she was saying what she always believed. More reporter than analyst and formally untrained in economics, she remained a journalistic voice for middle-class America. Her work on Rockefeller and Lincoln retained scholarly respect long after her pot-boilers of the interwar period were ignored. The New Yorker called her memoirs, All in a Day's Work, "serenely charming in a way all their own." Ida Tarbell died on January 6, 1944.


Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker. NY: Putnam, 1984 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).

Hamilton, Virginia der Veer. "The Gentlewoman and the Robber Baron," in American Heritage. Vol. XXI, no. 3. April 1970, pp. 78–86.

Tarbell, Ida M. All in a Day's Work: An Autobiography. NY: Macmillan, 1939.

Tompkins, Mary E. Ida Tarbell. NY: Twayne, 1974.

suggested reading:

Filler, Louis. Crusaders for American Liberalism: The Story of the Muckrakers. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1939.

Graham, Otis L., Jr. An Encore to Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal. Oxford University Press, 1967.

Lyon, Peter. Success Story: The Life and Times of S.S. McClure. NY: Scribner, 1963.

Thomas, Benjamin P. Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers. Princeton, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1947.


The papers of Ida Tarbell are located in Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, and the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

related media:

"Our Plan" (VHS, 8 hrs., part 1 of 8 parts), in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, Majestic Films, Ltd. and MICO, 1993.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida