It’s the birthday of American journalist Ida Tarbell (1857) (books by this author), best known for The History of the Standard Oil Company, a 19-part series of articles in McClure’s in 1902 that exposed the questionable business practices of the Standard Oil Company. The series eventually led the Supreme Court to break Standard Oil’s monopoly. Tarbell’s tenacious exposure of political and economic greed became known as “muckraking” and she was frequently referred to as “the terror of the trusts.” Tarbell is considered an early pioneer in investigative reporting.
Tarbell was born on a farm in Erie County, Pennsylvania, the daughter of an oil producer whose livelihood was severely diminished by an 1872 price-fixing scheme devised by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Standard Oil Company. Smaller producers were forced to sell Standard and if they didn’t, their businesses suffered. Watching these events unfold left a strong impression on young Tarbell, who became the only woman in her graduating class at Allegheny College.
About witnessing the effect of Standard Oil’s shady practices on local families and the regional economy, she once said: “There was born in me a hatred of privilege, privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy, to be sure, but it still was well, at 15, to have one definite plan 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.”
Ida Tarbell lectured on journalism and unfair business practices, and often spoke about sexual equality and the need for social reform. She even encouraged sewing girls to go on strike to improve their working conditions. She became so famous and influential that in 1914, Henry Ford tried to convince her to join his “celebrity-laden” “Peace Ship” to help end World War I. Tarbell found the idea preposterous and refused. She also had her critics, like Jane Addams, the progressive reformer, who admonished Tarbell for referring to the Women’s Suffrage movement as “unnecessary,” saying, “There is some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.” Tarbell never supported women’s right to vote.
Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company stands as one of the most important works of journalism in the 20th century. Her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work, was published in 1939. She refused to start writing it until she was 80 years old.
She once said: “I have never had illusions about the value of my individual contribution! I realized early that what a man or a woman does is built on what those who have gone before have done, that its real value depends on making the matter in hand a little clearer, a little sounder for those who come after. Nobody begins or ends anything. Each person is a link, weak or strong, in an endless chain. One of our gravest mistakes is persuading ourselves that nobody has passed this way before.”
Before she died, a reporter asked what she would change if she had the chance to rewrite History of Standard Oil. Ida Tarbell responded, “Not one word, young man. Not one word.”