Snippet of History's Women: 1st Women: Ida Tarbell – Pioneer Investigating Journalist

History's Women: 1st Women: Ida Tarbell – Pioneer Investigating JournalistIda Tarbell
Pioneer Investigating Journalist
1857–1944 A.D.

Perhaps best known as an investigative journalist—at a time when the profession was still new—Ida Tarbell wrote in 1904 a major publication, The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was a book that described unfair business practices that had personally touched her family.

Ida Minerva Tarbell, born in Erie County, Pennsylvania in November 1857, was the daughter of a former teacher who entered the new oil production business in the Titusville area. Oil had recently discovered at that time and Mr. Tarbell’s new position provided a comfortable lifestyle for his family in a prosperous community. Ida later recalled: “Things were going well in father’s business—it was what we had never known, luxuries we had never heard of.”

However, it all came to an end when John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company appeared on the scene. The problems began when the railroads doubled their rates to transport the crude and refined petroleum to the east coast, resulting in high inflation that preceded ruin for the entire area.  Apparently, Rockefeller had created a connection between the railroads and specially chosen refiners, and this and other arrangements seemed to represent a commercial monopoly. Practices that Ida later wrote about in her book and other articles.

Today we would call Ida and her associates activist investigative reporters but in the early 20th century the idea was new as they exposed accounts of the inequities in business at the time. They also wrote about political corruption and other social problems such as urban poverty and child labor.  Sometimes these writers were called “muckrakers.”

This term referenced a character in John Bunyan’s 18th century novel Pilgrim’s Progress describing a Christian’s spiritual life. The character was a “man with a muckrake” who neglected his spiritual life because he was too busy concentrating on digging out the “muck” (mud). In a 1906 speech President Theodore Roosevelt used the reference saying that “The men with the muck are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”  It seems that he was saying that all the exposes from “the muckrakers” were necessary but should also lead to improvements. That is, their passion for society reform should change the situation and they shouldn’t just write about it.

This was an idea Ida frequently heard about in her family as they were greatly interested in society reform. Because of this they often entertained supporters of current issues such as women’s’ rights and temperance/prohibition.

Ida attended, and then graduated from Allegheny College in 1876 where she was the only woman in her class of four. She had a long-term interest in biology. After graduation she worked as the headmistress and teacher at an Ohio school but after two years, she found it too much for her and returned home.

Her next position was to join the staff of a publication that supplemented home study courses operated by the Chautauqua organization.  Though later it evolved into a series programs made up of traveling lecturers and other entertainers, in the 1880s the Chautauqua name was synonymous with their self study adult education program. Ida became managing editor of the “house organ” in 1886. In 1887 she published an article that was inspired by a claim that there were few successful women inventors. However, Ida’s research at the Patent Office revealed that there were some 2000 patents held by women and the inventions were not confined to the domestic sphere. She followed this up publishing about the role of women in journalism at the time.

As a freelance writer in 1891 Miss Tarbell moved to Paris to research the life of French Revolution era writer Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platiere known as Madame Roland. While working on the biography. Ida met other writers, beginning an active social life associating with other members of the arts community. She also submitted and published articles in American newspapers as she learned investigative and research techniques.

One of her markets was McClure’s Magazine and for them she wrote articles about women and intellectuals in Paris. Over time she became the magazine’s Paris representative and when she had finished her biography of Madame Roland in 1894, she returned to the U.S. find a publisher and also to join the McClure’s staff.

Now residing in New York, Ida then began to work on a biographical article series on Napoleon Bonaparte. Then as she did so she developed her own writing style and met historians and educators who would help her on this and other pieces.

Once published in McClure’s the series on Napoleon proved very popular and greatly increased circulation. The new popularity also enabled her to find a publisher for her book on Madame Roland. She followed this by researching and then publishing a series on Abraham Lincoln, with the collaboration with Lincoln scholars and former associates.  She also published several books about Lincoln and traveled as a speaker on the 16th president.

About 1900 McClure’s began a series on the growth of trusts, primarily steel and sugar but then they settled on oil. In 1901 Ida took an interest in the Standard Oil Trust, the organization that ruined her father and their community, despite her father’s warning that John D. Rockefeller would personally oppose her investigations. When a Rockefeller bank did threaten the magazine’s financial future, Ida responded with indifference. As she covered the story, Ida’s investigative techniques involved using public and private documents, and oral interviews. She found that Standard Oil had, according to one source, “used strong-arm tactics and manipulated competitors, railroad companies and others to reach its corporate goals.”

Ida’s investigation of the Standard Oil monopoly appeared in a series of 19 articles that ran from 1902 to 1904 in McClure’s. Then this along with other articles by Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker proved to be the beginning of the era of muckraking journalism. And as these articles brought her fame, Ida also continued to use the new techniques to investigation—documents and interviews—now considered normal practices. These pieces in the popular press helped influence the passage of legislation to control and regulate such organizations as the Standard Trust. It also brought the development of the Federal Trade Commission.

In 1915 Ida returned to the Chautauqua organization to join their traveling programs as a speaker on such subjects as the evils of war, politics, trusts, and labors of women. Then as the U.S. entered World War I President Woodrow Wilson asked Ida to be part of a government program to mobilize the war efforts of American women. About this time, she began to show signs of Parkinson’s disease, but did not learn of the diagnosis at that time.

After the war Ida returned to Paris where she interviewed local residents for various articles.  For the rest of her life she continued writing, lecturing and traveling as a writer and speaker. She wrote articles in the 1920s on Benito Mussolini for McCall’s magazine. Her portrait of him was complimentary.

Ida wrote her autobiography in 1939 and was working on another book when she died in January 1944 at the age of 86.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks 2013 NY

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