If one should mention the name “Ida Tarbell” to an American of my generation or older, she or he is likely to respond “ah the muckraker”. ‘Tis a pity that she is remembered mostly for this unfair sobriquet, pinned on her by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Ida was born in 1857 and raised in Titusville, Pennsylvania – an oil boom town. (Remember that the petroleum business began in that State - think Pennzoil.) Her family were pious Methodists who were much attached to the Chautauqua Institute. Ida attended Allegheny College in Meadville PA. She became fascinated by the physical sciences, but the fates had it mind that she should become a writer.
She began her career by working for “The Chautauqua Assembly Herald”, a monthly magazine devoted to the Chautauqua principles of self improvement via piety and education. Employed at first as a proof reader, she soon was able to use her superb ability to write. She was badly treated by the magazine’s owner and editor (no one knows exactly what happened).
Ida then knew that in order to succeed she would have to “go it alone”. She decided that she could best make money by living in Paris, where she could write articles on all things French for the American audience.
Ida lived in dreadful poverty in Paris until in 1892 “Scribner’s Magazine” sent her the (at that time) huge sum of $100 for her story “France Adoree”, her story about her French tutor. This story brought her instant fame. She was sought out in Paris by one Samuel McClure who recognised that she had the exact abilities which would help him launch a new magazine “McClure’s”.
Ida returned to the United States to become a partner and a writer for the new magazine. It succeeded because of her. The magazine’s circulation increased by leaps and bounds because of her magnificent 24 instalment “History of the Standard Oil Company”.
Her writing was careful and based on in depth research. She knew her sources, both people and documents. Ida was a meticulous investigative reporter. The “History of the Standard Oil Company” exposed the predatory business practices of John D Rockefeller, the eminence grise behind Standard Oil, his building of a near monopolistic trust, and his ability to determine the price of oil – always to Standard’s advantage.
Ida Tarbell was a journalist without an opinion. Thus her expose of Standard Oil simply laid out the facts – leaving the reader to form an opinion one way or another. She had the integrity to do so even though her father and brother had been victimised by the Standard Oil trust.
In the end Ida’s refusal to simply report without her expressing opinion was vindicated. Her reports paved the way for the United States Congress to rule that Standard Oil was an illegal trust. Standard was broken up into a number of smaller companies by Act of Congress.
Tarbell was also the author of influential books on Napoleon and Lincoln. She wrote perceptive articles on Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola amongst others.
There is so much more about Ida’s work and life which I do not have time or space to report. Much of what I have written has arisen from my reading of a biography of Ida Tarbell by Kathleen Brady (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).
Despite Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalier words, Ida was NOT a muckraker. She was a fearless, courageous, hard-working and honest journalist of the sort which we rarely see today.