Biography of Ida Tarbell: Muckraking Journalist, Corporate Critic

Ida Tarbell in a high collar and neatly styled hair

Library of Congress / Getty Images

Ida Tarbell (November 5, 1857–January 6, 1944) was a critic of corporate power and muckraking journalist. Famous for her exposés of corporate America and for biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Tarbell was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1999, when NYU's Department of Journalism ranked important works of journalism from the 20th century, Ida Tarbell's work on Standard Oil made fifth place. She appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in September 2002 in a four-part collection honoring women in journalism.

Fast Facts: Ida Tarbell

  • Known For: Writing exposés about corporate monopolies and biographies on historical figures
  • Born: November 5, 1857 in Amity Township, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Franklin Sumner Tarbell Sr. and Esther Ann Tarbell
  • Died: January 6, 1944 in Bridgeport, Connecticut
  • Education: Allegheny College, Sorbonne, and the University of Paris
  • Published Works: "The History of the Standard Oil Company," "The Business of Being a Woman," "The Ways of Women," and "All in the Day's Work"
  • Awards and Honors: Member of the National Women's Hall of Fame
  • Notable Quote: "Sacredness of human life! The world has never believed it! It has been with life that we settled our quarrels, won wives, gold and land, defended ideas, imposed religions. We have held that a death toll was a necessary part of every human achievement, whether sport, war or industry. A moment's rage over the horror of it, and we have sunk into indifference."

Early Life

Originally from Pennsylvania, where her father made his fortune in the oil boom and then lost his business due to Rockefeller's monopoly on oil, Ida Tarbell read widely in her childhood. She attended Allegheny College to prepare for a teaching career. She was the only woman in her class. She graduated in 1880 with a degree in science, but she didn't work as a teacher or a scientist. Instead, she turned to writing.

Writing Career

She took a job with the Chautauquan, writing about social issues of the day. She decided to go to Paris where she studied at the Sorbonne and University of Paris. She supported herself by writing for American magazines, including writing biographies of such French figures as Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Pasteur for McClure's Magazine.

In 1894, Ida Tarbell was hired by McClure's Magazine and returned to America. Her Lincoln series was very popular, bringing in more than one hundred thousand new subscribers to the magazine. She published some of her articles as books, including biographies of Napoleon, Madame Roland, and President Lincoln. In 1896, she was made a contributing editor.

As McClure's published more about social issues of the day, Tarbell began to write about the corruption and abuses of public and corporate power. This type of journalism was branded "muckraking" by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Standard Oil and American Magazine

Ida Tarbell is best known for the two-volume work, originally nineteen articles for McClure's, on John D. Rockefeller and his oil interests, titled "The History of the Standard Oil Company" and published in 1904. The exposé resulted in federal action and, eventually, the breakup of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey under the 1911 Sherman Antitrust Act.

Her father, who had lost his fortune when driven out of business by the Rockefeller company, originally warned her not to write about the company. He feared they would destroy the magazine and that she would lose her job.

From 1906 to 1915, Ida Tarbell joined other writers at the American magazine, where she was a writer, editor, and co-owner. After the magazine was sold in 1915, she hit the lecture circuit and worked as a freelance writer.

Later Writings

Ida Tarbell wrote other books, including several more on Lincoln, an autobiography in 1939, and two books on women: "The Business of Being a Woman" in 1912 and "The Ways of Women" in 1915. In these, she argued that women's best contribution was with home and family. She repeatedly turned down requests to become involved in causes like birth control and woman suffrage.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson offered Tarbell a government position. Though she did not accept his offer, in 1919 she was part of his Industrial Conference and President Harding's 1925 Unemployment Conference. She continued writing and traveled to Italy where she wrote about the "fearful despot" just rising in power, Benito Mussolini.

Ida Tarbell published her autobiography in 1939, "All in the Day's Work." In her later years, she enjoyed time on her Connecticut farm. In 1944 she died of pneumonia in a hospital near her farm.