Ida Tarbell – Muckraker: How She Took Down Standard Oil

Ida Tarbell, 1857 – 1944

Born in 1857, in a log home in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, Ida Minerva Tarbell grew up among the derricks of the Oil Region. Ida’s father, Frank Tarbell, manufactured wooden storage tanks for the oil industry in Pithole, PA. He later became a refiner and producer. In 1872 Frank sympathized with independent oil producers in the Oil War against the Southern Improvement Company. The 1872 Southern Improvement scheme was a hidden agreement between the railroads and refiners led by John D. Rockefeller. The scheme killed the prosperous Pennsylvania oil region and destroyed families and their livelihoods. Ida later wrote, “Out of the alarm, bitterness and confusion, I gathered from my father’s talk, a conviction to which I still hold – is that what had been undertaken was wrong.”

 

Ida Tarbell, 1857 – 1944
Ida Tarbell, 1857 – 1944

She was the only woman to graduate in 1880 from Allegheny College. Her dogged pursuit for facts and fairness was the hallmark of her writing career. Frank Tarbell’s struggles against the advancements of Standard Oil influenced Ms. Tarbell’s interest in the Standard Oil trust. Between 1902 and 1904, Tarbell wrote a 19-part series for McClure magazine about the monopolizing powers of Standard Oil. Her series drew public attention and earned her the moniker of “muckraker.”

This 1915 photo shows John D. Rockefeller (76) and John D. Jr., (41), still going strong after Tarbell let the public know how powerful Standard Oil was, which led to the breakup of the company.
This 1915 photo shows John D. Rockefeller (76) and John D. Jr., (41), still going strong after Tarbell let the public know how powerful Standard Oil was, which led to the breakup of the company.

In her series, she condemned Standard Oil’s illegal practices. The rapidly changing economy in the late 1880s and the rise of monopolistic trusts was, wrote Ida, “disturbing and confusing people.”   Tarbell was obsessed with Rockefeller and convinced that Standard Oil was a great story. She gained access to Standard Oil executive H.H. Rogers (aka Hell Hound Rogers) who was under the impression that her intention was to present the public with an unbiased narrative of the oil business.  After Rogers read her installment about how Standard’s intelligence network operated (by exerting extreme pressure on small independent retailers), he became irate and refused to see her again. Ida’s first entry was published in November 1902 and month after month, she related Standard Oil’s story of machination and manipulation…of rebates and brutal competition. She portrayed Standard Oil as single-minded and in constant war against “injured independents.”

Tarbell is best known for her two-volume work (originally articles for McClure’s) on John D. Rockefeller and his oil interests: The History of the Standard Oil Company, published 1904. The exposé resulted in federal action and eventually in the breakup of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey under the 1911 Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Rockefeller did not publicly respond except to describe her as “that poisonous woman” and “misguided.” Tarbell was a career woman who never married. She died in 1944 at age 86.

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