Ida Tarbell: The Mother Muckraker!

WORLD HISTORY | April 8, 2019

(Original Caption) 9/20/1921- Ida M. Tarbell at her desk. She was the investigative journalist and chronicler of American industry, famous for her classic The History of the Standard Oil Company. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Born in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857, Ida Tarbell was the only woman in her college graduating class and one of the first female investigative journalists in America. Her series in McClure’s Magazine led to the downfall of the Standard Oil Company.

Ida Tarbell, Investigative Journalist. Source: (cellcode.us)

Her Younger Years

Ida Tarbell's father worked at an oil refinery in the northwest part of Pennsylvania, which was an area rich in oil. Because of Standard Oil’s monopoly and John D. Rockefeller’s dubious business practices, Ida witnessed her father and others in her community negatively impacted by such business schemes. This, of course, led to her interest in investigative journalism. After Tarbell graduated from college, she began teaching. She only taught for two years before leaving to pursue a writing career.

Cover of McClure’s Magazine. Source: (pinterest.com)

Tarbell’s first job as a writer was for a magazine called The Chautauquan and eventually became the managing editor there. In 1890, she left the magazine and moved to Paris, France. While there, she took graduate classes at the Sorbonne and the College de France. It was while she was living in France that she met Samuel McClure, founder of the monthly magazine McClure’s Magazine. He was impressed by her work and hired her to write for him. She wrote very popular articles about Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. It was when Tarbell began writing about a topic that affected her personally, The Standard Oil Company, that her writing really took off.

Political cartoon depicting the tentacles of Standard Oil. Source: (businessinsider.com)

Taking on Big Business

Tarbell, along with other progressives, was unhappy with businesses becoming monopolies and setting prices. She saw the bad effects of this first hand, as her father was one who suffered from such business practices. She proposed an article series using her childhood experiences to illustrate to others the consequences of such businesses. She spent several years researching the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller himself. Her series was titled The History Of The Standard Oil Company and was published in 1902 by McClure’s Magazine. The series was supposed to be in three installments, but was so popular it expanded to nineteen parts! She exposed the dubious practices employed by Rockefeller and Standard Oil, including the impact on families and working people. The last installment was published in 1904. All of the articles were made into a book with the same title as the series. This exposé led to changes in business law and dismantled the Standard Oil Company, which the Supreme Court determined was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Her series also led to a new style of journalism called ‘muckraking.’

Ida Tarbell authored the book, The Business Of Being A Woman. Source: (youtube.com)

‘The Business Of Being A Woman’

Ida Tarbell left McClure’s Magazine in 1906 and began writing for American Magazine. Along with writing for American Magazine, Tarbell was also the co-owner and co-editor. She wrote The Business Of Being A Woman in 1915. Tarbell found herself at odds with the women’s suffrage movement as her book described women in traditional roles. She also wrote books on Abraham Lincoln and her own biography, All In A Day’s Work.

Journalist and author Ida Tarbell was featured on a U.S. postage stamp. Source: (youtube.com)

Tarbell’s Later Years

Tarbell was also involved in politics. She served as a member of the Industrial Conference under Woodrow Wilson’s administration. She also participated in the Unemployment Conference under Warren Harding’s presidential term. Ida Tarbell died in 1943 at the age of eighty-six. She was inducted to the National Women’s Hall Of Fame and was featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp.

Tags: female author | ida tarbell | muckrackers

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