Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell

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."

Ida Tarbell died of pneumonia in Bridgeport Hospital, Connecticut, on 6th January 1944.

© John Simkin, May 2013

Primary Sources

 

(1) Ida Tarbell, All in the Day's Work (1939)

It was the spring of 1865. 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.

From that time the name spelt tragedy and mystery. Why all this sorrow over a man we had never seen, who did not belong to our world my world? Was there something beyond the circle of hills within which I lived that concerned me? Why, and in what way, did this mysterious outside concern me?

(2) Ida Tarbell, All in the Day's Work (1939)

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. Its main street had been graded and worked until fine afternoons, winter and summer, it was cleared by four o'clock for the trotting of the fast horses the rich were importing. When New Year's Day came every woman received wine, cakes, salads, cold meats on the table every man went calling. That is, Titusville was taking on metropolitan airs, led by a few citizens who knew New York and its ways, even spoke familiarly of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, both of whom naturally enough had their eye on us. Did not the Erie road from which they at the moment were filling their pockets regard oil as one of its most profitable freights? We were grain for their mill.

There was reason for confidence. In the dozen years since the first well was drilled the Oil Creek Valley had yielded nearly thirty-three million barrels of crude oil. Producing, transporting, refining, marketing, exporting, and by-products had been developed into an organized industry which was now believed to have a splendid future.

Then suddenly this gay, prosperous town received a blow between the eyes. Self-dependent in all but transportation and locally in that through the pipe lines it was rapidly laying to shipping points, it was dependent on the railroads for the carrying of its crude oil to outside refining points and for a shipping
of both crude and refined to the seaboard a rich and steady traffic for which the Oil Region felt the railroads ought to be grateful; but it was the railroads that struck the blow. A few refiners outside the region Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia concocted a marvelous scheme which they had the persuasive power to put over with the railroads, a big scheme by which those in the ring would be able to ship crude and refined oil more cheaply than anybody outside. And then, marvelous invention, they would receive in addition to their advantage a drawback on every barrel of oil shipped by any one not in the group. Those in the South Improvement Company, as the masterpiece was called, were to be rewarded for shipping ; and those not in, to be doubly penalized. Of course it was a secret scheme. The Oil Region did not learn of it until it had actually been put into operation in Cleveland, Ohio, and leaked out. What did it mean to the Oil Region? It meant that the man who produced the oil, and all outside refiners, were entirely at the mercy of this group who, if they would, could make the price of crude oil as well as refined.

But it was a plan which could not survive daylight. As soon as the Oil Region learned of it a wonderful row followed. There were nightly antimonopoly meetings, violent speeches, processions; trains of oil cars loaded for members of the off ending corporation were raided, the oil run on the ground, their buyers turned out of the oil exchanges ; appeals were made to the state legislature, to Congress for an interstate commerce bill, producers and refiners uniting for protection. I remember a night when my father came home with a grim look on his face and told how he with scores of other producers had signed a pledge not to sell to the Cleveland ogre that alone had profited from the scheme a new name, that of the Standard Oil Company, replacing the name South Improvement Company in popular contempt.

There were long days of excitement. Father coming home at night, silent and stern, a sternness even unchanged by his after-dinner cigar which had come to stand in my mind as the sign of his relaxation after a hard day. He no longer told of the funny things he had seen and heard during the day; he no longer played his jew's harp, nor sang to my little sister on the arm of his chair the verses we had all been brought up on...

They would succeed if their control of the railroads continued. He and his fellows felt as the men in the Oil Region did, that the breaking up of the South Improvement Company was a necessity for self-existence. They were as bold in action as in words, for when a little later the president of the Standard Oil Company of Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller (to date, the only beneficiary of the South Improvement Company), sought an interview in New York with Mr. Rogers and his committee he was treated cavalierly and according to the newspapers retreated after a brief reception "looking badly crestfallen".

Out of the long struggle begun as a scrimmage came finally a well developed cooperative movement guaranteeing fair play all around. It was signed by the Standard Oil Company's representative and all the oil-carrying railroads. The railroads indeed were the first to succumb, knowing as they did that what they
were doing was contrary to the common law of the land, and being thundered at as they were by the press and politicians of all the country. "I told Willie not to go into that scheme, said old Commodore Vanderbilt; and Jay Gould whined, "I didn't sign until everybody else had.

Out of the alarm and bitterness and confusion, I gathered from my father's talk a conviction to which I still hold that what had been undertaken was wrong. My father told me it was as if somebody had tried to crowd me off the road. Now I knew very well that, on this road where our little white horse trotted up and down, we had our side, there were rules, you couldn't use the road unless you obeyed those rules, it was not only bad manners but dangerous to attempt to disobey them. The railroads so said my father ran through the valley by the consent of the people; they had given them a right of way. The road on which I trotted was a right of way. One man had the same right as another, but the railroads had given to one something they would not give to another. It was wrong. I sometimes hear learned people arguing that in the days of this historic quarrel everybody took rebates, it was the accepted way. If they had lived in the Oil Region through those days in 1872, they would have realized that, far from being accepted, it was fought tooth and nail. Everybody did not do it. In the nature of the offense everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared give the privilege save under promise of secrecy.

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.

At all events, uncomprehending as I was in that fine fight, there was born in me a hatred of privilege privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy to be sure, but still it was well, at fifteen, to have one definite plank 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. At the moment, however, my reflection did not carry me beyond the wrongness of the privilege which had so upset our world, contradicting as it did the principle of consideration for others which had always been basic in our family and religious teaching. I could not think further in this direction, for now my whole mind was absorbed by the over-whelming discovery that the world was not made in six days of
twenty-four hours each.

(3) Ida Tarbell, McClure's Magazine (December, 1902)

In the fall of 1871, while Mr. Rockefeller and his friends were occupied with all these questions certain Pennsylvania refiners, it is not too certain who were occupied with all these questions certain Pennsylvania refiners, it is not too certain who, brought to them a remarkable scheme, the gist of which was to bring together secretly a large enough body of refiners and shippers to compel all the railroads handling oil to give to the company formed special rebates on its oil, and drawbacks on that of others. If they could get such rates, it was evident that those outside of their combination could not compete with them long, and that they would become eventually the only refiners. They could then limit their output to actual demand, and so keep up prices. This done, they could easily persuade the railroads to transport no crude for exportation, so that the foreigners would be forced to buy American refined. They believed that the price of oil thus exported could easily be advanced 50 per cent. The control of the refining interests would also enable them to fix their own price on crude. As they would be the only buyers and sellers, the speculative character of the business would be done away with. In short, the scheme they worked out put the entire oil business in their hands. It looked as simple to put into operation as it was dazzling in its results.

(4) Ida Tarbell, History of the Standard Oil Company (1904)

To know every detail of the oil trade, to be able to reach at any moment its remotest point, to control even its weakest factor - this was John D. Rockefeller's ideal of doing business. It seemed to be an intellectual necessity for him to be able to direct the course of any particular gallon of oil from the moment it gushed from the earth until it went into the lamp of a housewife. There must be nothing - nothing in his great machine he did not know to be working right. It was to complete this ideal, to satisfy this necessity, that he undertook, late in the seventies, to organise the oil markets of the world, as he had already organised oil refining and oil transporting. Mr. Rockefeller was driven to this new task of organisation not only by his own curious intellect; he was driven to it by that thing so abhorrent to his mind - competition. If, as he claimed, the oil business belonged to him, and if, as he had announced, he was prepared to refine all the oil that men would consume, it followed as a corollary that the markets of the world belonged to him. In spite of his bold pretensions and his perfect organisation, a few obstinate oil refiners still lived and persisted in doing business. They were a fly in his ointment - a stick in his wonderful wheel. He must get them out; otherwise the Great Purpose would be unrealised. And so, while engaged in organising the world's markets, he incidentally carried on a campaign against those who dared intrude there.

When Mr. Rockefeller began to gather the oil markets into his hands he had a task whose field was literally the world, for already, in 1871, the year before he first appeared as an important factor in the oil trade, refined oil was going into every civilised country of the globe. Of the five and a half million barrels of crude oil produced that year, the world used five millions, over three and a half of which went to foreign lands. This was the market which had been built up in the first ten years of business by the men who had developed the oil territory and invented the processes of refining and transporting, and this was the market, still further developed, of course, that Mr. Rockefeller inherited when he succeeded in corralling the refining and transporting of oil. It was this market he proceeded to organise.

The process of organisation seems to have been natural and highly intelligent. The entire country was buying refined oil for illumination. Many refiners had their own agents out looking for markets; others sold to wholesale dealers, or jobbers, who placed trade with local dealers, usually grocers. Mr. Rockefeller's business was to replace independent agents and jobbers by his own employees. The United States was mapped out and agents appointed over these great divisions. Thus, a certain portion of the Southwest - including Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas - the Waters-Pierce Oil Company, of St. Louis, Missouri, had charge of; a portion of the South - including Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi - Chess, Carley and Company, of Louisville, Kentucky, had charge of. These companies in turn divided their territory into sections, and put the subdivisions in the charge of local agents. These local agents had stations where oil was received and stored, and from which they and their salesmen carried on their campaigns. This system, inaugurated in the seventies, has been developed until now the Standard Oil Company of each state has its own marketing department, whose territory is divided and watched over in the above fashion. The entire oil-buying territory of the country is thus covered by local agents reporting to division headquarters. These report in turn to the head of the state marketing department, and his reports go to the general marketing headquarters in New York.

To those who know anything of the way in which Mr. Rockefeller does business, it will go without saying that this marketing department was conducted from the start with the greatest efficiency and economy. Its aim was to make every local station as nearly perfect in its service as it could be. The buyer must receive his oil promptly, in good condition, and of the grade he desired. If a customer complained, the case received prompt attention and the cause was found and corrected. He did not only receive oil; he could have proper lamps and wicks and burners, and directions about using them.

The local stations from which the dealer is served to-day are models of their kind, and one can easily believe they have always been so. Oil, even refined, is a difficult thing to handle without much disagreeable odour and stain, but the local stations of the Standard Oil Company, like its refineries, are kept orderly and clean by a rigid system of inspection. Every two or three months an inspector goes through each station and reports to headquarters on a multitude of details - whether barrels are properly bunged, filled, stencilled, painted, glued; whether tank wagons, buckets, faucets, pipes, are leaking; whether the glue trough is clean, the ground around the tanks dry, the locks in good condition; the horses properly cared for; the weeds cut in the yard. The time the agent gets around in the morning and the time he takes for lunch are reported. The prices he pays for feed for his horses, for coal, for repairs, are noted. In fact, the condition of every local station, at any given period, can be accurately known at marketing headquarters, if desired. All of this tends, of course, to the greatest economy and efficiency in the local agents.

(5) The New York Times (7th January, 1944)

By her own nobel career, and her constant interest in Allegheny, Ida Tarbell unquestionably brought more fame to the College through the years, than any other person. Sharing her success, Allegheny long ago won recognition as "that wonderful little college where first was lighted the flame of truth that burned within a great American." And sixty years after she had been one of its first women students, Miss Tarbell loyally gave Allegheny full credit for the help it had given her; no words written about Allegheny are better reading or more effective publicity than the Allegheny Chapter in her autobiography, All in the Day's Work, published by Macmillan in 1939.

Ida Tarbell was the lone woman to enter Allegheny in the fall of 1876. Coeducation was still an experiment, and there were only four other women students. But by Miss Tarbell's senior year, the girls were at Allegheny to stay, thanks to the erection of the first women's dormitory, growing out of a "coeducation campaign" in which Miss Tarbell herself played an important part.

Throughout her life Miss Tarbell was closely in touch with the College. She earned an M.S. degree in 1883 and was awarded two honorary degrees - L.H.D. in 1909, and LL.D. in 1915. For more than thirty years she was a member of the College board of trustees.

Five years ago Miss Tarbell made her last visit to Allegheny to deliver a series of lectures on "The Writing of Biography." Out of this visit came The Lincoln Room in the Reis Library, continuing a collection built around the fruit of her years of research and writing about Abraham Lincoln.

The story of her collection in the Lincoln Room and the statistics of her career are given on these pages. There is nothing that this publication can add to the tributes which already have appeared in the editorial columns of the leading newspapers. But it can be expressed here how proud Allegheny alumni have been that one from their ranks earned such universal esteem and affection; how proudly they will keep alive st Allegheny the name and tradition and spirit of Allegheny's brilliant daughter.

Her most persistent literary interest was Abraham Lincoln. Latter-day research has added something to the material she was able to gather, but her work in the field will soon be on any small shelf of Lincoln books for countless years to come. She was as honest, as kind, as thoroughly American in the loftiest sense as he was. He would have loved and understood her as she did him.

(6) The New York Times (17th January, 1944)

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born on a farm in Erie County, Pa., on Nov. 5, 1857. Her parents were Franklin S. Tarbell and Esther Ann McCullough Tarbell. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania her father became the first manufacturer of wooden oil tanks. The family moved to Rouseville, a village on Oil Creek, and later to Titusville....

Her "History of the Standard Oil," which first appeared in McClure's Magazine in nineteen installments, in 1904, was published in two volumes and drew immediate attention to the author. Her early reputation as a "trust buster" did not last, for she had in a high degree developed a sense of fairness, and this was particularly reflected in her "Life of Judge Gary," in which - contrary to all expectations - she had nothing but praise for Judge Gary.

© John Simkin, April 2013