Breaking Up the Big Boys—Ida Tarbell and the Defeat of Standard Oil

During 2020, we celebrated the suffragists who a century ago won the struggle to give women the right to vote. But voting is only part of what increased women’s power to shape their own lives. Many women were unable to get a job and earn money, so whether they could vote or not they continued to be dependent on their fathers, brothers, or husbands to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. This year we should celebrate some of the women who opened up new economic opportunities for women.

Ida Tarbell was someone who showed how powerful a woman’s voice could be. Like many women she used the power of words to even the playing field.  But unlike most women of her time, she did not write fiction, nor did she write about “women’s issues”. She plunged into the wider world of industrial competition and politics and she succeeded. Her writing and editorial work made her one of the most powerful voices influencing politics and business practices during the late 19th century.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1857, Ida Tarbell was encouraged to go to school and to read widely. Both her mother and father had been schoolteachers, but when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, her father became an oil dealer. After Ida graduated at the top of her class in high school, she went on to Allegheny College where she was the only woman in a class of 48. She studied biology and earned an MA as well as a BA. Job opportunities were limited after she graduated. She tried teaching, the traditional woman’s career,  but didn’t like it, so she decided to earn her living by writing.

Ida Tarbell

Tarbell began her career by writing articles for The Chautauquan, a magazine designed for readers interested in home study courses. Her scientific studies had trained her to search for facts and to check them carefully. In 1891, after she  had established her credentials as a writer, Tarbell decided to move to Paris and try to earn her living by independent writing. Although she dipped into fiction, she soon realized that her real talent lay in nonfiction.

While she was in Paris, Tarbell had an active social life and met many French intellectuals as well as visiting Americans. One of the visitors was Samuel McClure, the founder and publisher of the influential McClure’s Magazine. Recognizing the value of Tarbell’s work, McClure invited her to work with him. Even though she was reluctant to leave Paris, Tarbell decided to move back to New York where she became one of the most influential writers of the years around the turn of the 20th century.

During the 1890s, magazines were becoming the most important form of mass media in America. Unlike newspapers, which were limited geographically and by the tight schedules they had to maintain, magazines could publish authors who had time to investigate the background and history of current events. Ida Tarbell’s series of articles on Napoleon and on Abraham Lincoln made her one of the best-known and most influential writers in the country.

The story for which Ida Tarbell is best known is her account of the growth of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Because her father had run a small oil company in Pennsylvania, Tarbell was especially interested in how the Standard Oil Company had taken over oil production and had destroyed many small oil companies. She spent months investigating how the Company had developed. She researched articles diligently, interviewing executives and reading archives. Between 1902 and 1904, her work was published in nineteen articles in McClure’s Magazine. They were also published as book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which became a best seller. The impact of her work changed the way politicians and the public viewed the large corporations that had reshaped American business.

Ida Tarbell’s attitude toward women’s suffrage puzzled her friends and has caused consternation among some later writers who studied her life. Although her mother was strong in support of women’s suffrage, Ida Tarbell herself often downplayed its importance. She believed that many women found fulfilment and lived full lives without the vote, and that they would not gain much by suffrage. Perhaps one of the reasons for her attitude was that her life was very different from the lives of other women of her time.

Most women at the turn of the century knew men only as fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons. Ida Tarbell, however, worked with men as colleagues, bosses, and employees. She played an active and influential life, one that would not be changed much by an ability to vote. And at times, she seems to have seen the suffrage movement as an anti-male campaign. After the 19th Amendment was passed, however, she did support other women especially working women who had no choice but to work outside the home.

Ida Tarbell is a fascinating figure who had a great impact on the world of business and politics. There are several good biographies available. One recent one, which gives a lively account of her years with McClure’s Magazine, is Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine that Rewrote America (2020).  

One thought on “Breaking Up the Big Boys—Ida Tarbell and the Defeat of Standard Oil

  1. Wow! I’ve never heard about Ida Tarbell before but now I want to know more about her. And what a wonderful, intriguing idea: to explore the lives and contributions who opened up women’s ECONOMIC, rather than political, options. As we still see in the world today: MONEY TALKS! Yes, sadly, often it talks even more loudly than a vote does. That is a terrific insight. Thanks again!

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