Ida Minerva Tarbell

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Ida Minerva Tarbell

Birthdate: (87)
Death: 1944 (87)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Franklin Sumner Tarbell and Esther Ann Tarbell

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Immediate Family

About Ida Minerva Tarbell

Ida Minerva Tarbell (November 5, 1857 – January 6, 1944) was an American teacher, author and journalist. She was known as one of the leading "muckrakers" of the progressive era, work known in modern times as "investigative journalism". She wrote many notable magazine series and biographies. She is best known for her 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company, which was listed as No. 5 in a 1999 list by New York University of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism. She became the first woman to take on Standard Oil. Her direct forerunner was Henry Demarest Lloyd. She began her work on The Standard after her editors at McClure's Magazine called for a story on one of the trusts.

Early life and education

Tarbell was born in the village of Hatch Hollow in Amity Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania on November 5, 1857. She was born in a log cabin that was the home of her maternal grandfather, Walter Raleigh McCullough, a Scots-Irish pioneer. She grew up in the western region of the state, where new oil fields were developed in the 1860s. She was the daughter of Esther Ann (née McCullough) and Franklin Summer Tarbell, a teacher and a joiner by trade, who used his trade to build wooden oil storage tanks.

In 1860 Ida's father moved the family to Titusville, Pennsylvania. He built a house which was her mother's first home of her own. He later became an oil producer and refiner in Venango County. Her father's business, along with those of many other small businessmen, was adversely affected by the South Improvement Company scheme (circa 1872) between the railroads and larger oil interests. Later, Tarbell would vividly recall this situation in her work, as she accused the leaders of the Standard Oil Company of using unfair tactics to put her father and many small oil companies out of business.

Tarbell graduated at the head of her high school class in Titusville and went on to study at Allegheny College in 1876. She majored in biology.

After graduating from college, Tarbell began her career as a teacher at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. She taught two classes each of four languages, geology, botany, geometry and trigonometry. After two years, she realized teaching was too much for her and that she enjoyed writing more.

Tarbell returned to Pennsylvania, where she met Theodore L. Flood, editor of The Chautauquan, a teaching supplement for home study courses at Chautauqua, New York. She was quick to accept Flood's offer to write for the publication; as she said, “I was glad to be useful, for I had grown up with what was called the Chautauqua movement.” In 1886 she became managing editor. Her duties included proofreading, answering reader questions, provide proper pronunciation of certain words, translation of foreign phrases, identifying characters and defining words. “Doing this job I began to think about facts and reading proofs. It was an exacting job which never ceases to worry me. What if the accent was in the wrong place? What if I brought somebody into the world in the wrong year?”

In 1890 Tarbell moved to Paris to do post-graduate work and write a biography of Madame Roland, the leader of an influential salon during the French Revolution. While in France, she wrote articles for various magazines, catching the eye of publisher Samuel McClure. He offered her the position as editor for the magazine. While working for McClure's Magazine, Tarbell wrote a popular series on Napoleon Bonaparte.

Her 20-part [8] series on Abraham Lincoln doubled the magazine's circulation, and was published in a book, giving her a national reputation as a major writer and the leading authority on the slain president. Her research in the backwoods of Kentucky and Illinois uncovered the true story of Lincoln's childhood and youth. She vividly chronicled his rise to the presidency.

Influence on the oil industry

In 1900 Tarbell began to research the Standard Oil trust with the help of assistant, John Siddall. Tarbell began her interviews with Henry H. Rogers. Rogers had begun his career during the American Civil War in western Pennsylvania oil regions where Tarbell had grown up. In 1902 she conducted detailed interviews with the Standard Oil magnate.

Rogers, wily and normally guarded in matters related to business and finance, may have been under the impression her work was to be complimentary. He was apparently unusually forthcoming. However, Tarbell's interviews with Rogers formed the basis for her negative exposé of the business practices of industrialist John D. Rockefeller and the massive Standard Oil organization. Her investigative journalism series first appeared in a 1903 issue of McClure's Magazine alongside articles by Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker that ushered in the era of muckraking journalism. The series was later published as a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904.

"Tarbell's biggest obstacle, however, was neither her gender nor Rockefeller's opposition. Rather, her biggest obstacle was the craft of journalism. She proposed to investigate Standard Oil and Rockefeller by using documents - hundreds of thousands of pages scattered throughout the nation - then fleshing out her findings through well-informed interviews with the company's current and former executives, competitors, government regulators, antitrust lawyers, and academic experts."

"And then, in an inspirational tale for journalists, Ida Tarbell went to work. Her History of the Standard Oil Company spotlighted Rockefeller's practices and mobilized the public. Readers nationwide awaited each chapter of the story, serialized in 19 installments by McClure's between 1902 and 1904."

Tarbell's look into the oil industry is known to have reinvented investigative reporting. Her stories on Standard Oil began in the November 1902 issue of McClure's and lasted for nineteen issues. She was meticulous in detailing Rockefeller's early interest in oil and how the industry began. After the series was over, she wrote a profile of Rockefeller, perhaps the first CEO profile ever, though she never met, or even talked to Rockefeller.

Tarbell developed investigative reporting tactics, digging into public documents across the country. Separately, these documents provided individual instances of Standard Oil's strong-arm tactics against rivals, railroad companies and others that got in its way. Organized by Tarbell into a cogent history, they became a damning portrayal of big business. Indeed, a subhead on the cover of Weinberg's book encapsulates it this way: "How a female investigative journalist brought down the world's greatest tycoon and broke up the Standard Oil monopoly."

Tarbell's reporting and writing of Standard Oil stood above everything else for two reasons. It was the first corporate coverage of its kind, and it attacked the business operations of Rockefeller, the best-known CEO in the country at the time. That a prominent person in American society could lead a company that used such unsavory operating tactics was eye-opening.

Tarbell disliked the muckracker label, and wrote an article, "Muckraker or Historian," in which she justified her efforts for exposing the oil trust. She referred to

"this classification of muckraker, which I did not like. All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced."


Tarbell died of pneumonia at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut on January 6, 1944, after being in the hospital since December 1943. She was 86.


The Ida Tarbell House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Tarbell' s exposé fueled negative public sentiment against Standard Oil and was a contributing factor in the U.S. government's antitrust actions against the Standard Oil Trust Company.
In 2000 Tarbell was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
On September 14, 2002, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Tarbell as part of a series of four stamps honoring women journalists.

Imagination is the only key to the future. Without it none exists — with it all things are possible.

Ida M. Tarbell


Ida Tarbell helped transform journalism by introducing what is called today investigative journalism. Through her achievements she not only helped to expand the role of the newspaper in modern society and stimulate the Progressive reform movement, but she also became a role model for women wishing to become professional journalists.

Born on the oil frontier of western Pennsylvania in 1857, Tarbell was among the first women to graduate from Allegheny College in 1880. After trying her hand at the more traditional women's job of teaching, Tarbell began writing and editing a magazine for the Methodist Church. Then, after studying in France for a few years, she joined S. S. McClure's new reform-minded magazine in 1894. Initially she wrote two popular biographical series--on Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. In 1902, she embarked on her ground breaking study of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, or what was called the Standard Oil Trust. Her History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, was a landmark work of exposé journalism that became known as "muckraking." Her exposure of Rockefeller's unfair business methods outraged the public and led the government to prosecute the company for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As a result, after years of precedent-setting litigation, the Supreme Court upheld the break-up of Standard Oil.

As the most famous woman journalist of her time, Tarbell founded the American Magazine in 1906. She authored biographies of several important businessmen and wrote a series of articles about an extremely controversial issue of her day, the tariff imposed on goods imported from foreign countries. Of this series President Woodrow Wilson commented, "She has written more good sense, good plain common sense, about the tariff than any man I know of."

During World War I she joined the efforts to improve the plight of working women. In 1922, The New York Times named her one of the "Twelve Greatest American Women." It was journalism like hers that inspired Americans of the early twentieth century to seek reform in our government, in our economic structures, and in our urban areas.

Along with other muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Upton Sinclair, Tarbell ushered in reform journalism. Ever since, newspapers have played a leading role as the watchdogs and consciences of our political, economic, and social lives. Although Tarbell was not, herself an advocate of women's issues or women's rights, as the most prominent woman active in the muckraking movement and one of the most respected business historians of her generation, Tarbell succeeded in a "male" world – the world of journalism, business analysis, and world affairs, thus helping to open the door to other women seeking careers in journalism and, later, in broadcasting.

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Ida Minerva Tarbell's Timeline

Age 87