Monday, November 5, 2012

Ida Tarbell

Born this day in 1857: Ida Tarbell (1857–1944), journalist whose stunning exposé of Standard Oil led to the breakup of the oil trust and established investigative journalism.

In 1880 Ida Tarbel became the first woman to earn a degree from Allegheny College. After a brief stint teaching, she joined the staff of the Chautauquan as a writer and editor. She left the Chautauquan in 1891 to study the women of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne. She supported herself by selling articles to American periodicals. In 1892 she began a long relationship with McClure’s.
She made her first big splash by writing a serial biography of Napoleon. The series brought wide attention to the newbie periodical and likewise established Tarbell’s career as a journalist. The articles were later collected in book form (A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1895), selling 100,000 copies.  She and McClure’s followed this success with an equally well-received series on Abraham Lincoln (which was collected in book form as The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1900). The careful research she put into her portrayal of Lincoln revealed a talent for investigation that would serve her throughout her career.
The many-tentacled Standard Oil octopus
appeared in Puck in 1904.
Tarbell’s master work was her investigation in the business practices of Standard Oil. The company was a vertically integrated corporate trust headed by John D. Rockefeller. By 1880 it controlled 90 percent of U.S. oil production and 90–95 percent of refining capacity. Tarbell relentlessly and diligently researched and read thousands of documents and conducted interviews with both Standard Oil insiders and with outsiders whose businesses were victims of Standard Oil’s unethical business practices.  Her 19-part exposé of Standard Oil’s business practices and their effects appeared in McClure’s from 1902 to 1904. The revelations enraged the nation and forced the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust. In 1911 the U.S. government ordered the dismantling of the monopoly under the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
With her history of Standard Oil  Tarbell invented investigative journalism. She and other so-called muckrakers gave a new purpose to journalism and fueled the Progressive Era. 
The Standard Oil exposé was published in book form in 1904. You can read The History of the Standard Oil Company online for free here and here.

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