Ida Tarbell

Muckraking Journalist

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell. Interim Archives/Getty Images

Known for: Exposes of corporate America, especially Standard Oil; biographies of Abraham Lincoln.

Dates:  (November 5, 1857 - January 6, 1944)
Occupation: Newspaper and magazine writer and editor, lecturer, muckraker.
Also known as: Ida M. Tarbell, Ida Minerva Tarbell

About Ida Tarbell:

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. 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 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: biographies of Napoleon, Madame Roland and Abraham 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 Articles

Ida Tarbell is best known for the two-volume work, originally nineteen articles for McClure's, on John D.

Rockefeller and his oil interests: The History of the Standard Oil Company, published 1904. The exposé resulted in federal action and eventually in the breakup of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey under the 1911 Sherman Anti-Trust 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, fearing they would destroy the magazine and she would lose her job.

American Magazine

From 1906-1915 Ida Tarbell joined other writers at the American magazine, where she was a writer, an 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. She did not accept his offer, but later was part of his Industrial Conference (1919) and his successor's Unemployment Conference (1925).

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.