November 5, 2014

Investigative journalist Ida Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857. She is best remembered for her 19-part McClure’s Magazine series, that began in 1902, about corruption at the Standard Oil Company.

The series, which later became a book, is considered one of the great investigative pieces of the 20th century.

“One of the crusading journalists labeled ‘muckrakers’ by President Teddy Roosevelt, Tarbell was the lone woman among such illustrious reporters as Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Peter Finley Dunne and others.

….Tarbell wrote on a wide range of topics from Paris for American newspapers, and her ‘syndicate’ kept her afloat for three years of great adventures starting from her base in the Latin Quarter. But an encounter with Samuel C. McClure, editor of the eponymous magazine, who looked her up in Paris after reading her dispatches, brought her back to the United States.

At first Tarbell was the magazine’s principal biographer, and her writing on the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte boosted circulation and helped her become, as McClure later wrote, ‘the most generally famous woman in America.’

Tarbell was best known for the stunning series on the history of the Standard Oil Co, and its founder, John D. Rockefeller. She no doubt was driven in part by her childhood experiences of the oil industry, in which her father lost his business and income.

….Tarbell’s lifetime of journalism made it possible for her readers to experience in painstaking detail some of the important but distant issues affecting their lives. And through her unmistakable fact-based approach, she still makes it possible for today’s readers to gain insight in the personalities, workplaces and issues of her time.”

— “Ida Tarbell: 1857-1944. McClure’s
Society of American Business Editors & Writers, March 2013

2002 U.S. stamp, Poynter.org Image

2002 U.S. stamp, Poynter.org Image

The following comes the PBS American Experience documentary, “The Rockefellers.”

“By the early 1900s, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had finished building his oil empire. For over 30 years, he had applied his uncanny shrewdness, thorough intelligence, and patient vision to the creation of an industrial organization without parallel in the world. The new century found him facing his most formidable rival ever — not another businessman, but a 45-year-old woman determined to prove that Standard Oil had never played fair. The result, Ida Tarbell’s magazine series ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company,’ would not only change the history of journalism, but also the fate of Rockefeller’s empire, shaken by the powerful pen of its most implacable observer.”

….In ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company,’ she skillfully infused her exposé of the complicated inner workings of Rockefeller’s trust with dramatic tension. Her eloquent prose, as gripping as it was rich in detail, captivated thousands of readers and established her as one of the most accomplished non-fiction writers of her time.”

An excerpt from Ida Tarbell’s series, “The History of the Standard Oil Company”:

“….It takes time to crush men who are pursuing legitimate trade. But one of Mr. Rockefeller’s most impressive characteristics is patience. There never was a more patient man, or one who could dare more while he waited. The folly of hurrying, the folly of discouragement, for one who would succeed, went hand in hand. Everything must be ready before he acted, but while you wait you must prepare, must think, work. ‘You must put in, if you would take out.’ His instinct for the money opportunity in things was amazing, his perception of the value of seizing this or that particular invention, plant, market, was unerring. He was like a general who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from a balloon the whole great field, and see how, this point taken, that must fall; this hill reached, that fort is commanded. And nothing was too small: the corner grocery in Browntown, the humble refining still on Oil Creek, the shortest private pipe line. Nothing, for little things grow.”

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate

More News

Opinion | It’s a big night for NewsNation

The relatively new TV network is hosting the fourth Republican presidential debate. It has a chance to get in front of more eyes than ever before.

December 6, 2023
Back to News