Muckraker Ida Tarbell: Biography, Accomplishments & Books

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Read on to see how a daughter's view of her father forever influenced her writing and desire to change the world, while bringing down one of the world's largest corporations in the process.

The Shadow of Standard Oil on a Young Child's Life

The muckrakers were a group of journalists who were focused on reforming American politics and economics in the early 1900s. Ida Tarbell was one of the most important muckrakers. Her work challenged the business practices of Standard Oil, one of the largest businesses in American history. Ida Tarbell's commitment to understanding and exposing the truth to the public could be seen from the earliest of ages.

Ida Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857 in Pennsylvania. It seemed as if the little girl was fated to write about big business practices. Tarbell's father was a part of the oil business, running a small oil production refinery. Things were going well in her father's business until Standard Oil came into the town. In what would be later dubbed the 'Cleveland Massacre' in describing how Standard Oil and its leader John D. Rockefeller treated smaller companies, Tarbell's life changed forever.

Secret deals between Standard Oil and the railroads helped to eliminate small oil businesses, like Tarbell's father's. These deals consolidated Standard Oil's power and control over the marketplace. As a result, Tarbell's father was faced with an agonizing choice of either selling his company to Standard Oil and Rockefeller and taking the money that comes with it or struggling to keep his smaller company afloat against the giant corporation.

Tarbell's father chose to keep the business. His partner committed suicide due to the financial pressure, and Tarbell struggled to make ends meet. The unfair economic practices impacting her father's business were a shadow that never really left the young girl.

Tarbell's Emergence as a Writer

Still feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong in what happened to her father's business, Tarbell stayed close to home and pursued her studies at Allegheny College. The experiences her father had with Standard Oil chiseled the young girl into an active agent of social change:

'There was born in me a hatred of privilege…. It was all pretty hazy, to be sure, but it was 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.'

As the only woman in the graduating class of 1880, Tarbell was accustomed to being a lone voice. After a small teaching spell, Tarbell used her savings to start writing on various subjects, traveling overseas to do so. Tarbell became a writer of merit, substantiated with time spent studying at the Sorbonne.

While writing overseas, Tarbell attracted the attention of editor Samuel Sidney McClure. He was the publisher for McClure's Magazine, a home for muckrakers to publish their work. Tarbell started writing for McClure's Magazine. Her first articles dealt with Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon. Both subjects would be later expanded into books, representing the first moments where she was seen as a significant writer. She began to attract a following because of her insight, sense of talent in historical writing, and keen prose. All three would converge in Tarbell's work as a muckraker.

Tarbell and Investigative Journalism

Tarbell wanted to investigate the wrong she saw in the rise of corporate interests. She saw the increase in monopolistic trusts as consisting of 'disturbing and confusing people.'

Tarbell used the latitude granted to her by McClure's Magazine to start a series of investigative reports about Rockefeller's rise in Standard Oil. She accessed public records, interviews, court transcripts, and mainstream news reports to develop narrative about how Standard Oil consolidated power and grew at the cost of smaller businesses.

In combination with her gifted approach to writing, Tarbell felt passionate about what she was undertaking. Citing interests of 'the general good,' Tarbell recognized that producing work that exposed the truth about Standard Oil would represent a significant accomplishment and establish herself as a muckraker.

Tarbell's work resulted in an opus that was serialized in 19 parts. The History of Standard Oil was published over the course of two years, and later became the book with which her name would always be associated. Such a prolonged publication period helped Tarbell to gather more readers.

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