Ida Tarbell, the daughter of Franklin Summer Tarbell and Esther Ann McCullough, was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania on 5th November 1857. For the first three years of her life she lived in her grandfather's log cabin.
In 1860 the family moved to Titusville, where Franklin Tarbell became an oil producer and refiner in Venango County. "Things were going well in father's business; there was ease such as we had never known, luxuries we had never heard of. Our first Christmas in the new home was celebrated lavishly... This family blossoming was characteristic of the town. Titusville was gay, confident of its future. It was spending money on schools and churches, was building an Opera House where Janauschek soon was to play, Christine Nilsson to sing. More and more fine homes were going up."
Franklin Tarbell was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and she later recorded how her parents cried when they heard of his death: "Father was coming up the hill, mother and I were watching for him. Usually he walked with a brisk step, head up, but now his step was slow, his head dropped. Mother ran to meet him crying, 'Frank, Frank, what is it?' I did not hear the answer ; but I shall always see my mother turning at his words, burying her face in her apron, running into her room sobbing as if her heart would break. And then the house was shut up, and crape was put on all the doors, and I was told that Lincoln was dead."
Ira father's business was destroyed by the large railway and oil companies. This included the Standard Oil Company. "In walking through the world there is a choice for a man to make. He can choose the fair and open path, the path which sound ethics, sound democracy, and the common law prescribe, or choose the secret way by which he can get the better of his fellow man. It was that choice made by powerful men that suddenly confronted the Oil Region. The sly, secret, greedy way won in the end, and bitterness and unhappiness and incalculable ethical deterioration for the country at large came out of that struggle and others like it which were going on all over the country an old struggle with old defeats but never without men willing to make stiff fights for their rights, even if it cost them all they ever hoped to possess." Justin Kaplan has pointed out: "As an independent in Titusville, he and his partner had fallen victim to Standard Oil; the partner shot himself, and Franklin Tarbell went into debt."
Ida was an intelligent student and after leaving Allegheny College, Meadville, she found employment as a teacher at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. Her main desire was to work as a writer and after two years teaching she began working for Theodore Flood, editor of The Chautauquan. Flood quickly realised her talent and in 1886 she was appointed managing editor. A job she did for the next eight years.
In 1891 Tarbell went to Paris and studied at Sorbonne University for three years. Her main areas of interest were the activities of Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein and Marie-Jeanne Roland, two women involved in the French Revolution. While in France she continued to contribute to American newspapers.
Samuel McClure, created McClure's Magazine, an American literary and political magazine, in June 1893. Selling at the low price of 15 cents, this illustrated magazine published the work of leading popular writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. McClure also produced articles about historical figures from the past and commissioned Tarbell to write about Napoleon Bonaparte.
Lincoln Steffens, the editor of the magazine, was so impressed with her work, he recruited her as a staff writer. Tarbell's 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln doubled the magazine's circulation. In 1900 this material was published in a two-volume book, The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Steffens was interested in using McClure's Magazine to campaign against corruption in politics and business. This style of investigative journalism that became known as muckraking.
Tarbell's articles on John D. Rockefeller and how he had achieved a monopoly in refining, transporting and marketing oil appeared in the magazine between November, 1902 and October, 1904. This material was eventually published as a book, History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). Rockefeller responded to these attacks by describing Tarbell as "Miss Tarbarrel". The New York Times commented that "Miss Tarbell's fine analytical powers and gift for popular interpretation stood her in good stead" in the articles that she wrote for the magazine. It is claimed that these articles were partly responsible for the passing of the Clayton Antitrust Act.
In 1906 Tarbell joined with Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William A. White to establish the radical American Magazine. Steffens's biographer, Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974), has argued: "That summer he and his partners celebrated their freedom from McClure's house of bondage, as they now saw it. There was a spirit of picnic and honeymoon about the enterprise; affections, loyalties, professional comradeship had never seemed quite so strong before and never would again. They dealt with each other as equals." Steffens later commented: "We were all to edit a writers' magazine." Articles by Tarbell for the magazine included John D. Rockefeller: A Character Sketch (July, 1907); Roosevelt vs. Rockefeller (December, 1908); The Mysteries and Cruelties of the Tariff (November, 1910) and The Hunt for the Money Trust (May, 1913). She also wrote several books on the role of women including The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Women (1915).
C. C. Regier, the author of The Era of the Muckrakers (1933) has argued that it is possible to tabulate the achievements of investigative journalism by Tarbell and her friends: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; race-track gambling was prohibited; twenty states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; twenty-five states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and the Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."
During this period she held radical political views that she hoped would create a "socialized democracy." However, in the 1930s she became a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tarbell criticised those who retained their socialist faith. She wrote that "communism and socialism treat human beings like mere cogs in a machine."
In her autobiography, All in the Day's Work (1939) Tarbell attempted to distance herself from the left: "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."
© John Simkin, May 2013