Standard Oil I - Ida Tarbell: Pioneering Oil Industry Journalist

Exactly a hundred years ago Standard Oil, which controlled the oil industry in the US, was forced to split into several companies, due largely to the pioneering work done by Ida Tarbell.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 2 - 2011


Ida Tarbell’s family house in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The house is now owned by the Oil Region Alliance of Pennsylvania. Photo: Rasoul Sorkhabi In 2002 the US Postal Service issued a set of “Four Women in Journalism” stamps, including one for Ida Tarbell shown here. Ida Minerva Tarbell (5 November 1857 – 6 January 1944), a six feet tall, courageous American woman teacher, journalist, biographer, author, and lecturer. A pioneering “muckraker” (a term President Theodore Roosevelt coined in 1906, and today known as investigative journalist), her works are still regarded as important historical documents. This photo was taken in 1904 when her book The History of the Standard Oil Company was published. J.E. Purdy Co., Boston (Wikipedia) In 1911 - now one hundred years ago - the US Supreme Court ordered the Standard Oil Company, an oil monopoly in the USA, to split into several independent companies with separate boards of management. This anti-trust regulation against a company that controlled 90% of oil production in the USA was partly influenced by the research work of a woman journalist, Ida Tarbell, author of The History of Standard Oil Company. Here we present the first of a three-part look at this fascinating chapter in the history of the oil industry. In this issue, we look at the life and work of Ida Tarbell and how she was led to write that masterpiece in the history of investigative journalism and the oil industry. In the next issue we will present a profile of John D. Rockefeller and how he created the Standard Oil Company. Finally, we will examine the structure of Standard Oil and what actually happened to its child companies.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born in a family farmhouse in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857, two years before Edwin Drake discovered oil in the nearby Oil Creek, Titusville, which ushered in the modern oil industry in the USA (Geo ExPro Vol. 6, No. 3). In 1860 her father, Franklin Tarbell, moved the family to Rouseville, a village on Oil Creek, and started manufacturing wooden tanks for oil storage. With more oil discoveries in the region, his business grew, and shortly after he formed a local oil production and refining company. Meanwhile, his family had also grown: Ida now had three younger siblings. In 1870, the family moved to a new house in Titusville.   

This was also the year John D. Rockefeller established the South Improvement Company (later Standard Oil.) His aim was to integrate the oil industry activities in the US under his umbrella enterprise in order to lessen the mushrooming competition from the numerous small companies, which was reducing oil prices. His ambitious and notorious scheme of buying, entering into partnership, or destroying uncooperative smaller companies eventually made Franklin Tarbell’s company go out of business in 1872. Ida Tarbell, then a curious and studious young girl, witnessed this business brutality with a particular interest.   

In fall of 1876, Ida entered the Allegheny College, Meadville, PA, the only female student in her class. In 1880, she graduated in biology. For the next two years she taught at a school in Portland, Ohio, and then joined the writing staff of The Chautauqua, a home study magazine at Chautauqua, New York. In 1890, the US Congress passed the Sherman Anti-trust Act, although the government was reluctant to enforce it. The following year, Tarbell went to Paris to study the biography of Madame Roland, a woman intellectual during the French Revolution, and also to work as a free-lance journalist for magazines back home.   

Samuel McClure, who had founded the McClure’s Magazine in 1884, was impressed by Tarbell’s writings from Paris and commissioned her to write articles on Louis Pasteur and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1894, Tarbell returned to Pennsylvania, and a year later, she published a series of articles on the biography of Abraham Lincoln in the McClure’s which earned her a national reputation. 

Taking on Standard 

 All these experiences prepared Tarbell to take on the task of writing The History of the Standard Oil Company, as a series of articles in the McClure’s. “Don’t do it, Ida,” her father cautioned her, “They will ruin the magazine.” But Tarbell went ahead, interviewing people and investigating all documents with help from an editor friend John M. Siddall. The Standard Oil heard of her investigations, and one of its senior managers Henry H. Rogers requested his friend Mark Twain (the famous novelist) to introduce him to Tarbell. For months, Tarbell had access to Rogers for interviews, which Rogers hoped would make Tarbell’s report “right” in the Standard. Their relations were cordial; especially since both were of the same generation who grew up on the Oil Creek. “I remember your father’s tank shop [in Rouseville],” Rogers told Tarbell. But after Tarbell in one of her articles documented how Standard Oil obtained information from the railroads about the sale and shipments its competitors made and then ensured that the shipments did not reach their destinations, Rogers was furious and did not want to meet with her again. 

Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company, both as articles in McClure’s and in a 1904 book volume, was well received by the public, the media and by the political supporters of Theodore Roosevelt. He had been elected US President in 1903, and was called by some media the “trustbuster.”   

In 1905, Tarbell went to Kansas and Oklahoma to cover the recent oil discoveries. In 1906, she helped create The American Magazine (where she served until 1915 and was succeeded by John Siddall as editor). In the same year, Tarbell bought a house in Easton, Connecticut, where she would eventually pass away in 1944 (at age 86) during the turbulent years of World War II. Tarbell’s house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. In October 2000, Tarbell was listed among the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York, and the Pennsylvania State House declared November 4 as Ida Tarbell’s Day in that state.   

In her autobiography, All In the Day’s Work (published in 1939), Tarbell remarked on the Standard Oil Company: “I never had an animus against their size and wealth, never objected to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could, but only by legitimate means. But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.”   

This autobiography, as well as a more recent work, Kathleen Brady’s Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (1984,) are informative sources for additional reading on Tarbell. However, Tarbell herself did not like the title “muckraker,” and preferred that she is viewed as a historian journalist.   


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