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Standard Oil, Tariffs, and Ida Tarbell

The Progressive Era was a time of change. Reform-minded journalists, writers, and photographers, the so-called muckraking journalists like Samuel Hopkins Adams and Ida Tarbell, used their skills to delve into their subjects and popular magazines of the day documented it all.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born in 1857 in Pennsylvania and grew up in the Pennsylvania oil country. She studied biology at Allegheny College and after graduating, became an educator for a few years before returning home and writing for The Chautauquan. After a few years she struck out on her own, moved to Paris where she wrote for several American newspapers, and honed her investigative skills. She started writing freelance pieces for McClure’s and later returned home to work directly for the magazine.

Tarbell wrote many books but over here in Business Reference, the History of Standard Oil stands out, though there is also The Business of Being a Woman, The Tariffs in Our Times, New Ideals in Business, and An Account of Their Practice and Their Effects upon Men and Profits. She also wrote her autobiography All in the Day’s Work; An Autobiography where she had this to say about her journalism:

Was it not the duty of those who were called muckrakers to rake up the good earth as well as the noxious? Was there not as much driving force in a good example as in an evil one? (p280)

Illustration shows Theodore Roosevelt as the infant Hercules fighting large snakes with the heads of Nelson W. Aldrich and John D. Rockefeller cover of Puck Magazine.

The infant Hercules and the Standard Oil serpents, 1906. Frank A. Nankivell, artist.

Her investigation into Standard Oil, which was originally published as a 19 part series in McClure’s, is something she is particularly known for, and her interest in the company dates back to her younger years which she recounts in her autobiography:

I had been only dimly conscious of what had happened in the decade following – the decade in which the Standard Oil Company had completed its monopoly. It was the effect on the people about me that stirred me, the hate and suspicion and fear that engulfed the community. I had been so deeply stirred by this human tragedy… (p. 203)

In recounting her work on Standard Oil, she provided some background about the many congressional investigations in the 1870s as well as the investigations by the State of New York in 1888. She also wrote about her information gathering, which is interesting to me as a librarian, and chased down documents that were often very hard to find and was eventually able to talk to people at the company. Through the connection between Mark Twain and the publisher of McClure’s, she was able to secure interviews with one of the leaders of the company Henry Rogers (who she seems to have liked and respected), as well as meetings with Henry Flagler and even John D. Rockefeller (neither of whom she seems to have cared for). She continued to interview Rogers for about two years, even after the first of her pieces was published, and those interviews only stopped when his rivalry with F. Augustus Heinze drew more of Rogers’ attention.

In the years after the articles were published, pressure on the company increased. In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, that Standard Oil of New Jersey violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and would be dissolved and split into 34 companies. She made an interesting observation about the company:

There it was, the obsession of the Standard Oil Company, that danger lurked in small as well as great things, that nothing, however trivial, must live outside of its control. (p. 216)

Tarbell sitting and writing at a desk in in front of a desk strewn with papers

Ida Tarbell, Harris & Ewing.

Ida Tarbell’s series was part of the story. She is part of American business history.

Tarbell went to work with the American Magazine where one of her first assignments was to write a history of the tariff schedules after the Civil War. Tariffs had become a hot topic for many including her:

What had particularly aroused me was the way tariff schedules were made, the strength of what we now call pressure groups – the powerful lobbies in wool and cotton and iron and sugar which for twenty-five years I had watched mowing Congress down like a high wind. There was no concealment of the pressure. (p. 268)

advertisement from American Magazine for Tarbell's "Tariff in our Times" with a write up of the book. It features a sketch of her and a signature. The cost for the magazine was 19 cents at newsstands $1 for a years subscritption

Time Dispatch, 24 Nov. 1906.

She was encouraged by Grover Cleveland’s support and indignation over how the tariff system benefited the trusts, and developed a good professional relationship with him. Much like with her work on Standard Oil, she recounted her research process, which included looking at congressional documents, interviewing those that were involved in writing the laws, and people in various industries. Her work culminated in a series of pieces in the magazine over five years and the book The Tariff in Our Times where she mused about the issue in the book’s preface:

It takes no extended examination of any period in the last fifty years—the term covered by the phrase “Our Times” in the title of this book—to convince an unprejudiced student that as far as the tariff is concerned public opinion has never been fairly embodied in the bills adopted. If the popular understanding of protection as expressed in our elections had been conscientiously followed, there would be to-day no duties on iron and steel products, on cheap cottons and cotton mixtures, and, certainly none on a great variety of raw materials probably including raw wool. That is, in these cases and in multitudes of similar ones, the purposes of protection had been realized, or it had been proved that they never could be realized; and in either case the dogma required the duty to be withdrawn. This volume is an attempt to tell in narrative form the story of this defeat of the popular will.

Tarbell had an active life. She wrote about the public transportation system in Chicago, met Jane Addams, was friendly with Mark Twain, corresponded with Teddy Roosevelt, wrote about Abraham Lincoln and a number of business topics, lectured throughout the United States, and supported World War I war efforts. For a time her health suffered, but she continued to work and eventually wrote her autobiography.

Ida Tarbell died in January 1944 but interest in her continues. I have used her autobiography as a window into her life and work, but there are biographies, images, correspondence she had with people like Anna E. Dickinson, and articles in Chronicling America that all provide an interesting way to further explore her life and work.

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3 Comments

  1. Fay Menacker
    October 11, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Great article, and how you have researched this time period and Ida Tarbell is especially interesting. The quotes from her work add so much to our understanding of what she was facing and fighting for.

  2. Lynn Weinstein
    October 11, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    Fascinating article! Readers may also be interested in the blog Rockefeller: Making of a Billionaire and the library guide Oil and Gas Industry: A Research Guide

  3. Joanna
    October 12, 2022 at 7:35 am

    Wow! Loved learning about this writer!

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