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Ida Tarbell
Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Ida Tarbell

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Ida Tarbell was an American journalist best known for her pioneering investigative reporting that led to the breakup of the Standard Oil Company’s monopoly.

Who Was Ida Tarbell?

Ida Tarbell was an American journalist born on November 5, 1857, in Erie County, Pennsylvania. She was the only woman in her graduating class at Allegheny College in 1880. The McClure’s magazine journalist was an investigative reporting pioneer; Tarbell exposed unfair practices of the Standard Oil Company, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court decision to break its monopoly.

Early Life

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, in the oil-rich region of northwestern Pennsylvania. Her father was an oil producer and refiner whose livelihood — like many others in the area — was negatively impacted by an 1872 price-fixing scheme concocted by the Pennsylvania Railroad and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, who were operating under the guise of the South Improvement Company. As a result of their tactics, many of the smaller producers were forced to sell to Standard, and most of those who didn’t — including Tarbell’s father — struggled to keep their businesses afloat. Witnessing the impact of these events on her family and others left a profound impression on the young girl and would prove pivotal in her later life. 


Tarbell attended Titusville High school and graduated with honors in 1875. The following year she enrolled at Allegheny College, where she pursued studies in biology but also began to develop a strong interest in writing. She graduated as the only woman in her class in 1880 and took a teaching job in Poland, Ohio. But after two years, she resigned from her post in pursuit of a writing career. 

'Chautauquan' and 'McClure'

Returning to Pennsylvania, Tarbell became acquainted with the editor of a small magazine called The Chautauquan and was offered a job with the journal. She worked there for the remainder of the decade, holding various positions before becoming its managing editor. In 1890, however, she left both the paper and the country, moving overseas to Paris for several years to pursue graduate studies at the Sorbonne and the College de France.

While in Paris, Tarbell continued to work as a journalist, contributing articles to American magazines. Her work eventually came to the attention of Samuel McClure, founder of the illustrated monthly McClure’s Magazine, which featured both political articles and serialized printings of literary works. Tarbell thrived at McClure’s and during her time with the journal authored numerous successful pieces, including popular biographies of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. But it was when Tarbell decided to mine her own past that her writing would achieve its greatest effect.

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'The History of the Standard Oil Company'

Like many young journalists of her era, Tarbell had become concerned by the proliferation of monopolies and trusts. In 1900 she proposed a series of articles in which she would use her experiences as a child during the South Improvement scandal to illustrate her points and spent the next several years deeply immersed in research on the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller’s business practices.

Titled The History of the Standard Oil Company, the first installment was published by McClure’s in 1902 and was so immediately successful that what had been originally planned as a three-part series was eventually expanded to a 19-part work. In it she exposed Standard’s often questionable practices, including those surrounding the events that had so greatly impacted her family and others in their area decades earlier. The last installment was published in October 1904, at which point it was collected in a book of the same title.

Tarbell’s exhaustive study not only gave rise to a new style of investigative journalism sometimes referred to as muckraking but also was instrumental in the 1911 dismantling of the Standard Oil Company behemoth, which was determined to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  

Other Books: 'All in the Day’s Work'

Tarbell left McClure’s in 1906 and for the next nine years wrote for American Magazine, of which she was also a co-owner and co-editor. She authored numerous longer works as well, including The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Women (1915), whose traditional conceptions of gender roles put her at odds with the suffragist movement of the era. Tarbell’s less controversial offerings include several extensive books on Abraham Lincoln and her 1939 autobiography, All in the Day’s Work. She also stayed connected to politics for much of the remainder of her life, serving as a member of the Industrial Conference during the administration of Woodrow Wilson as well as Warren Harding’s Unemployment Conference. 

Death and Legacy

In December 1943, at the age of 86, Ida Tarbell contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She died there on January 6, 1944. In recognition of her achievements, in 2000 Tarbell was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and two years later she was featured as part of a United States Postal Service stamp series commemorating women journalists. Her History of the Standard Oil Company stands as one of the most important works of journalism in the 20th century.

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