Research Paper – Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Company

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Company

Her Attack on the Standard Oil Company and the Influence it had Throughout Society

091120 Lee Hee Yoon

Table of Contents

Ⅰ. Introduction

Ⅱ. Background Information

Ⅱ.1 The Progressive Era

Ⅱ.2 The muckrakers

Ⅱ.3 The Standard Oil Company

Ⅲ. Ida M. Tarbell

Ⅲ.1 Biography

Ⅲ.2 Why she targeted Standard Oil

Ⅲ.3 The Attack on Standard Oil (The History of the Standard Oil Company)

Ⅳ. Influences

Ⅳ.1 Influence on the Standard Oil Company and related industries and trusts

Ⅳ.2 Influence to other muckrakers or journalists

Ⅳ.3 Political influence

Ⅳ.4 Influence on law

Ⅳ.5 Influence as an individual

Ⅴ. Conclusion

Ⅵ. Bibliography


A period of change is bound to follow a devastating period of unrest and instability. The Progressive Era was such a period of change. In this era, a group of journalists known as muckrakers played an important role in revealing and arousing public opinion on the drawbacks of society. Of this group of journalists, a prominent figure, named Ida M. Tarbell, immerged and played part in “busting the trusts”, by revealing the corruption and the evils of the Standard Oil Company, a major petroleum monopoly and trust.

This paper will focus on Ida M. Tarbell’s attack on the Standard Oil Company and answering the question on what caused her to focus on this particular corporation. In addition, the purpose of this paper also includes analyzing the effects and influence Tarbell (in some cases with fellow journalists) held by five subcategories: influence on related industries, on fellow journalists and muckrakers, on politics, on law, and to her own individual standing.

Ⅱ Background Information

This section is to provide background information on terms that has to do with the focus of this paper.

Ⅱ.1 The Progressive Era

The Progressive Era is a period of broadly based reform movement also known as the progressive movement or progressivism (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). There is no precise boundary that is fixed upon this era, so this paper will limit this period to: from 1901 to 1918, which is throughout the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the first term of Woodrow Wilson.

The progressive movement was caused in response to the combination of social problems that followed the rapid industrialization, urban expansion, and immigration that happened by the end of the 19th century. In the early years of the new century, the progressive movement had immerged that ranged from economical, political, social, and moral reform. Most progressives were committed to the idea of “Social Gospel” or “social justice”, and shared goals of limiting the power of big business, improving social environments, and improving democracy for the people. Though progressives did not always see eye to eye on matters, most believed that the government should play a role in the process of reform. The progressive movement brought about: the decline of machine politics, establishment of women suffrage, birth to settlement houses, start of birth control for women, strengthening of the regulation of business, reform of the banking system, and many more social reforms(The Unfinished Nation 5th ed.(McGraw-Hill),pp 554-79).

Ⅱ.2 The Muckrakers

Because public support was important for accomplishing effective social reform, it was important the task of informing and arousing the public on the problems the society faced. A group of journalists referred to as muckrakers did the job. Muckrakers were a group of writers and journalists who aroused public opinion by attacking social evils like slums, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency, and also by exposing the dishonesty, corruption, and greed in machine politics and business. (Encyclopedia of American History) The term – “muckraker”- was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech on April 14th, 1906, in which he agreed with many of the charges of the muckrakers came up with, but asserted that some of their methods were too sensational and irresponsible, by comparing this group of journalists to a character from the Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan: a man with the muckrake who could look no way but downward with a muckrake in his hands and was interested only in raking the filth(Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). (“The man with the muckrake……. Who could look no way but downward.” (Britannica Encyclopaedia book 8: p.390-391))

Magazines of wide circulation such as McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and The American provided the journalists with sufficient funds for investigation and large enough audiences, in order to throw their pages open to such disclosures and arouse nationwide concerns. Of the most famous were: Ida M. Tarbell, who is the major focus of this paper, of The History of the Standard Oil Company(1902), Lincoln Steffens of The Shame of the Cities(1904), David Graham Phillips of The Treason of the Senate(1906), and Upton Sinclair of The Jungle(1906).

As most historians agree that without the muckrakers, the progressive movement wouldn’t have earned the public support it needed, we can infer, beforehand, that the muckrakers had significant influence in the media and that Ida M. Tarbell’s attack on the Standard Oil Company would have carried some weight on the formation of the public opinion on the company itself and related industries.

Ⅱ.3 The Standard Oil Company

The Standard Oil Company, the largest unit in the American oil industry and the first great effective industrial combination of its time, was founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1870. In just a short period of time, by the mid-1870s, the company had absorbed or eliminated most of its rival concerns(Encyclopedia of American History,1113-14). To do so, they used a series of cutthroat techniques such as: temporarily undercutting the price until competitors went bankrupt, negotiating with railroads to earn special rebates to save shipping costs, buying up competitors, and spying. By the end of the decade, the Standard Oil Company exercised a virtual monopoly over the production, transportation, refining, and marketing of petroleum products (Figure 1( cartoons – gilded age)). The company grew, and in 1882, all of its properties and its affiliates were merged into the Standard Oil Trust, which was first of the great corporate trusts that dominated the end of the 19th century (The Standard Oil monopoly, LINFO).

Figure 1- A Comic Strip that shows the power of the Standard Oil Company

Standard Oil’s wrongdoings didn’t go unnoticed, and it faced fierce criticisms on corruption and corporate greed by the public and many journalists. The media attack on the Standard Oil existed almost from the moment the trust formed, but the attack reached its peak in the ‘muckraking era’ from 1902 to 1912. The most noteworthy of these critiques was that from Ida M. Tarbell, who published numerous articles on the Standard Oil in a renowned magazine (The Standard Oil monopoly, LINFO).

The company remained the largest oil refiner in the world and the first and largest corporation, and it withstood the attacks of antitrust laws in 1899 by transferring to a holding company under the name of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. It continued to stand strong until the dissolution of the holding company was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911(Encyclopedia of American History 1113-14).

Ⅲ. Ida M. Tarbell

Ⅲ.1. Biography

Ida M. Tarbell, full name Ida Minerva Tarbell(Figure 2(Ida Tarbell Home Page)) was born on 1857, in a log cabin in Erie County, Pennsylvania. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, her father started an oil tank business, which thrived, however short that period had beed, and the family moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania. Thanks to her father’s short success in business, she was able to live in a reasonable condition with good education. She enrolled at Allegheny College, as the only female in a class of forty students. After graduation, she taught at the Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio, but she soon found out that teaching wasn’t her thing and returned home. There, she was offered an internship for The Chautauquan, a publication that served the Chautauquan Institution located near the New York lake. This was the beginning of her journalism career. She became managing editor of the publication and stayed there for seven years. After, she flew to Paris and stayed there for 3 years, and those 3 years turned her into a serious journalist.

Figure 2- Ida M. Tarbell

In 1894, she was hired by S.S.McClure to write for the McClure’s Magazine. Her first work on the magazine was a biography on Napoleon, and the following biography on Abraham Lincoln gave her fame as a biographer. Her proficiency led her to become an associate editor of the magazine in 1900, and at the same time, she started the research on the Standard Oil Trust, which would lead her to her most famous and influential piece of work: The History of the Standard Oil Company. In 1906, Tarbell bought The American Magazine with a few fellow journalists and remained associate editor until 1915. After that, she reconnected herself to the Chautauquan society by giving lectures, and in her later years she spoke frequently at public meetings. Her autobiography All in the Day’s Work was published in 1939, and she died in January 6, 1944 at the age of 86 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Introduction. All in the Day’s Work: an Autobiography)

Ⅲ.2 Why she targeted Standard Oil

At first, just by a glimpse, a link that would lead to answering the question on why Ida Tarbell specifically targeted Standard Oil seems nonexistent. It is likely that people would think that Tarbell wrote articles on the Standard Oil Company just because she was told to do so and that the Standard Oil was just an unlucky organization that landed in the scrutiny of this talented journalist. However, when you take a closer look into her childhood, you’ll find out that a link indeed exists. Ida’s father worked in the oil industry. He first started an oil tank business, and later he became an oil producer and refiner in a small county. His business, along with other small oil industries was doing pretty well, until John D. Rockefeller started to use unfair tactics to lower railroad fares for larger oil companies. Her father’s business suffered, and through this experience, Tarbell learned to hate privilege. This hatred was revealed as she accuses the leaders of the Standard Oil of corrupt and unfair methods to earn a dominant position over other businesses. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that there was a reason why Ida Tarbell targeted the Standard Oil Company, which is because she experienced, or rather, had secondhand experience of the wrongdoings of this gigantic trust herself.

Ⅲ.3 The Attack on Standard Oil (The History of the Standard Oil Company)

Tarbell used investigative reporting to reveal and criticize the corruption of Standard Oil. Starting in-depth investigation from 1900, she aimed to use a variety of documents on the Standard Oil Company, interview employees and competitors, or even experts on related fields. In 1902, by a lucky stroke, she was able to get an interview with Henry Rogers, the most powerful and conspicuous man in the Standard Oil Company at that time. Thanks to his unusually forthcoming attitude, mostly out of ignorance of her purpose, she was able to hold detailed interviews with him for nearly two years, and information from these interviews soon became the base for her criticism and negative exposure of the company. (All in the Day’s Work: an Autobiography, pp202-230)

LeftFigure 3

The first issue of the Standard Oil series in the McClure’s Magazine







Right: Figure 4

The History of the Standard Oil Company

The first issue on the Standard Oil Company was published in the McClure’s Magazine in November 1902(Figure 3(Nieman Reports)), and it explicitly exposed the corruption and wrongdoings of Standard Oil over the next 19 issues, until October 1904. The series was then published into a two volume book by the title The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904(Figure 4(History of Business Journalism)). The publishing of the book drew immediate attention to the author, and the books became a best-seller, and had a great impact throughout society(further elaborated in next section).

The following are some excerpts from The History of the Standard Oil Company that reveals the conspiracy of Standard Oil and Ida Tarbell’s opinion and criticism about it. These excerpts show how effectively Ida Tarbell revealed the corruption of the trust.

“But in December, 1877, after the monopoly was completed, they refused to discharge their obligations in the customary way…….. They issued an order that no oil would be run in that district for any one unless it was sold for “immediate shipment”-that is, no oil would be taken to hold for storage; it would be taken for shipping only……. The seller was asked what he would take; his offer was, of course, according to his necessities…….The seller was told to come back in five or ten days and he would be told if his oil would be taken……. Formerly the buyer and seller had met freely in the oil exchanges and their business offices, and transactions had been carried on as among equals. Now the producers were obliged to form in line before the United Pipe Lines’ offices and to enter one at a time to consult the buyer. A line of a hundred men or more often stood during the hours set before the office, waiting their turn to dispose of their oil.” (“THE HISTORY OF THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY.”)

“The first thing was to get a charter-quietly……which gave its owners the right to carry on any kind of business in any country and in any way; ……… The name of the charter bought was the “Southern (usually written South ) Improvement Company.” For a beginning it was as good a name as another, since it said nothing……. In order that their great scheme might not be injured by premature public discussion they asked of each person whom they approached a pledge of secrecy……” (“THE HISTORY OF THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY.”)

“ ‘From whom was that information received?’ asked the examiner.

‘From the officers of the Standard Oil Company. They made no bones about it at all. They said: “If you don’t sell your property to us it will be valueless, because we have got advantages with the railroads.”’ (“THE HISTORY OF THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY.”)

“There is no cure but in an increasing scorn of unfair play — an increasing sense that a thing won by breaking the rules of the game is not worth the winning. When the businessman who fights to secure special privileges, to crowd his competitor off the track by other than fair competitive methods, receives the same summary disdainful ostracism by his fellows that the doctor or lawyer who is unprofessional receives … we shall have gone a long way toward making commerce a fit pursuit for our young men.” (Listen to Genius: Free Audio Downloads of the Works of Important Authors. Web)

These few excerpts alone show how much research and effort Ida Tarbell put in researching and investigating the Standard Oil case. Also, this greatly detailed and thorough exposé is proof of Tarbell’s determination to bust the trust. Also, from the last excerpt, we can see Tarbell’s bitter criticism on the sense of ethics or morality of the Standard Oil Company.

Ⅳ. Influences

Ⅳ.1 Influence on the Standard Oil Company and related industries and trusts

The detailed and thorough exposé accompanied with Tarbell’s criticisms was definitely damage to the Standard Oil Company. In fact, the exposure alone was a great blow to the organization. Though the public did suspect some corruption or conspiracy behind the monopoly, they were shocked when they found out the truth in such detail on how Standard Oil managed to eliminate its potential competitors and build an uneven ground that made of fair trade impossible. The shocked public unleashed their fury by criticisms and public attacks not just on Standard Oil, but to trusts in general as well.

Rockefeller tried to defend himself by saying: “It was the law of nature, the survival of the fittest……. An able, intelligent, far-seeing organization simply outstripped men in the casual, haphazard way of doing business. That was inevitable.” in response to Ida Tarbell’s further criticisms: “they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.”(American Experience | The Rockefellers |). He also called Ida Tarbell as “Miss Tarbarrel” in response to her vehement criticisms (Spartacus Educational). However, it was too late for him to win back the trust of the angry public. Ida Tarbell’s disclosure on Standard Oil is widely credited as the means that fueled the 1911 breakup of the Standard Oil Company. The issue on trusts and monopolies didn’t end with Standard Oil, and many other trusts suffered the attacks of the public and other journalists as well. It could be said that Ida Tarbell was the one to trigger the attack on big business and trusts that would go on for years.

Ⅳ.2 Influence to other muckrakers or journalists

Ida Tarbell was a leading muckraker, and she influenced fellow muckrakers and journalists who followed her footsteps in revealing the dark sides of society. As a journalist, she gave birth to a new method, or rather, her brand of journalism: investigative journalism. Unlike previous speculations and feeble attempts of exposure without any solid evidence or facts, her reports were based on hard facts and interviews from reliable sources. The fact that the Standard Oil Company had written records dating back from its birth was one of the factors that made Tarbell choose Standard Oil as the trust to bust. Starting from 1900, she looked into tons of documents and records that had to do with Standard Oil, and another noteworthy fact is that she covered the records of all regions, not just one, in order to come up with explanations on different events that took place in different areas. Her interviews are also very impressive. She managed to continually meet Henry Rogers and conduct interviews on the insides of Standard Oil. Not just him, she held interviews with former competitors with Standard Oil and other people who knew the corruption behind the trust, and these interviews became a valuable base to her reports.

Her scientific and objective and unbiased method of investigation, (also the in-depth contents) inspired many fellow muckrakers and future journalists, including Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle, who revealed the reality in the meatpacking industry. Many adopted her brand of investigative journalism, and many investigations the journalists hold these days follow a similar route. Steve Weinberg, who wrote Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller quoted: “it(The History of the Standard Oil Company) was a classic not only for what it achieved—paving the way for legal restraints on Standard Oil—but for what it remains, a paragon of impeccable American expository prose” (Columbia Journalism Review)

Ⅳ.3 Political influence

At first, when journalists came up with new issues that needed readdressing, President Theodore Roosevelt responded by initiating legislations that would help tackle the problems that the journalists came up with. This included persuading Congress to pass new legislations such as the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drugs Act in response to Sinclair’s The Jungle. Journalists considered him on their side and expected much from the government. However, as criticisms on society began to aim also at the government, (for instance, David Graham Phillips’ The Treason in the Senate) the president turned his back on these journalists. In his speech in April 1906, Theodore Roosevelt compared this group of journalists with the muckrakers in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The “muckrakers” became offended and betrayed by the president who they helped get elected. Lincoln Steffens, another leading muckraker grew furious and declared: “Well, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you.” (Spartacus Educational, muckraking)

Much was the same for Ida Tarbell. Though the relationship between Roosevelt and investigative journalists, including herself, was pleasant in yearly years when her book was published, (1904) she was very disappointed by the betrayal of the president, and she was offended by the accusation that investigative journalists like herself are impractical. She also disliked being called a “muckraker”, which she clearly stated in a section in her autobiography: “I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced” (All in the Day’s Work: an Autobiography ,pp231-53)

However, though it is understandable that journalists were offended that their ally turned their back on them, they should also have been glad in some ways because the fact that the president denounced them in a public speech means that he feared the influence they held over the public. Roosevelt feared that the journalists’ continuing criticisms aimed at the government would turn the public opinion against his government, and his speech in April 1906 became proof of the fact that muckrakers, Ida Tarbell at front, had great influence in society and politics as well.

Ⅳ.4 Influence on law

Ida Tarbell’s attack on the Standard Oil brought about the downfall of the nation’s biggest trust. How could this be possible when Standard Oil had been dodging antitrust laws so well? According to the Court Record on Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States from 1910 to 1911, the company was ordered breakup because it violated the Sherman Antitrust Law (Justia & Oyez. Web). Based on the fact that the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890, the only conclusion that we can make is that the reinforcement of this particular antitrust law has been strengthened. The reason behind this is obviously the influence Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company had on the public opinion. As the public grew angry at trusts, most particularly Standard Oil, they obviously wanted the breakdown of the company. As people grew restless, the government eventually felt the need to tighten the regulation on big business and trusts.

A similar example can be seen in another muckraker’s work: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. After Sinclair revealed the unsanitary, poor conditions and corruption of the meatpacking industry, the shocked public began to panic. They demanded immediate solution to the government, and Congress passed two laws: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drugs Act that same year. These two cases very effectively illustrate how journalists of this period influenced law and made the changes that they felt was necessary for the improvement of society.

Ⅳ.5 Influence as an individual

After Tarbell sold The American Magazine, she went on numerous lectures and she gave numbers of speeches in many public meeting that she attended. This fact shows that she was a very sought after person, and that she became an important person in society. This becomes more remarkable when we observe that Ida Tarbell was female and in her time, women were generally considered inferior to men. In fact, because of this, many women suffrage supporters actually asked Tarbell for her support and help, which she declined because she wasn’t that enthusiastic about the rights of women. Whatever her response was, this shows that her career and her works actually influenced her social stance as well; it helped her become an active and valuable member of society. (Ida Tarbell Home Page. Web)

Ⅴ. Conclusion

Though journalists mostly do not directly dive into politics, study law, or go on a strike, they hold a powerful influence over society and public opinion. They fight with their pens in hand. Muckrakers of the Progressive Era, especially, were able to wake the public up on social issues that needed change; some even managed to make the changes that they wanted by bringing about modifications or stronger reinforcement of law. Though muckrakers weren’t on best terms with the president, this fact is yet another proof of their influence over the public.

Of the group, Ida M. Tarbell was one of the leading muckrakers and one of the most influential journalists of her time. The History of the Standard Oil Company, along with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is said to be the most prominent works of that era. The more impressive fact is that she was the only female muckraker who held that much influence.

Motivated from the hatred of the privileged that came from the early years of her life, she dove into the investigation of the nation’s biggest and most powerful company in history and successfully managed to reveal the gory and ugly tactics it used to eliminate fair trade and competition. This exposé on Standard Oil led to its downfall in 1911. In addition to bringing down a monster of a company, Ida Tarbell influenced all parts of society and established herself as one of the most prominent journalists and progressives of her time.

Ⅵ. Bibliography

  • “Muckrakers %u2014” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 6th ed. Web.


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  1. sfsfdsfa says:

    I don’t really understand the paper well but I think it is a very interesting topic. I really enjoyed reading it although it is kind of off my interest.

  2. [...] Articles: “The Rockefellers,” American Experience,,  “The Lessons of Ida Tarbell, by Steve Weinberg, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, 1997,  “Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Company: Her Attack on the Standard Oil Company and the Influence it had Throughout Society,” by Lee Hee Yoon, [...]

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