Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Before the creation of the Pulitzer Prize, long before Woodward and Bernstein, there was Pennsylvania’s own Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944). Best known as the muckraking journalist who single-handedly took on the mighty John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), she was among the most feared and admired women of her time.

Writing during the Progressive Era, an age of hope and reform running roughly from 1880 to about 1920, she was among the first to use the magazine as an instrument of change with her series documenting the omnipotent Standard Oil Company, later published in 1904 as a two-volume work. According to economics expert Daniel Yergin, The History of the Standard Oil Company is one of the most important business books ever written. (Yergin received the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, a best-seller which emerged as an eight-hour PBS/BBC series seen by more than twenty million television viewers in the United States.) Tarbell’s relentless pursuit of the facts led the United States Supreme Court to order the breakup, in 1911, of the giant oil monopoly, which Rockefeller had organized in 1870.

Tarbell’s landmark investigation ranks fifth in a list of the top one hundred news stories identified by the journalism department of New York University (NYU). Ranking ahead of Tarbell’s work are John Hershey’s Hiroshima, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate break-in, and Edward R. Murrow’s reporting during the Battle of Britain. In compiling the list for NYU, Jeff Greenfield of Cable News Network (CNN) told The New York Times, “The cliché of journalism is that it’s a first rough draft of history. This makes you go back and look at what journalistic works endure and why.”

Despite Tarbell’s enduring achievements, little is known about the personal life of this remarkable woman who grew up among the independent oil producers in northwestern Pennsylvania. How did this quiet, even-tempered woman withstand powerful forces in big business, uncovering facts that would lead to their demise? Why did she forgo marriage to pursue her ambitions, yet refuse to champion women’s rights? Did she regret her choices or lament her sacrifices?

The story of Ida Minerva Tarbell begins in Pennsylvania, in the tiny farming village of Hatch Hollow, Erie County, where schoolteacher Esther McCullough Tarbell gave birth to a daughter on November 5, 1857. Her mother named her Ida after a character in “The Princess,” a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson who believed in the higher education of women, and Minerva after the goddess of wisdom. Esther’s pioneering husband, Franklin Sumner Tarbell, was stranded more than one thousand miles away in Iowa. The Panic of 1857 had wiped out the family’s savings, claiming the house he had built for his new family and forcing his return on foot.

Two years later, a discovery on the banks of Oil Creek would change their lives forever. In August 1859, Edwin L. Drake sunk the world’s first successful oil well two miles outside of Titusville, unleashing a stampede of speculators (see “The Valley That Changed the World: Visiting The Drake Well Museum” by Jane Ockershausen, Summer 1995). Ida’s father started a business making wooden tanks to transport oil and moved his family to a shantytown on the outskirts of Rouseville so he could be near the oil fields. His daughter was left to explore the mysterious world around her, collecting wildflowers and rock specimens that she would one day examine under a microscope. She was insatiably curious. In an early “experiment,” she picked up her little brother and dropped him in a brook to see if he would float. “I observed that some things floated on the surface, others dropped to the bottom, it set me to wondering what would happen to my little brother, then in dresses, if dropped in. I had to find out,” Tarbell recalled in her memoirs. The scientific method of testing a thesis thrilled her from youth and foreshadowed her work in journalism.

In 1865, Franklin Tarbell joined the rush to Pithole City, the most famous of all boomtowns, where wells spouted six thousand barrels a day. Fifty hotels, saloons, a bank, daily newspaper, post office, theater, and more than two hundred dwellings sprang up in only a few months. The excitement abruptly ended five hundred days later when Pithole’s wells went dry. Speculators, entrepreneurs, and residents vanished, and Pithole became a ghost town. Ida’s father paid six hundred dollars for Bonita House, the town’s leading hotel, which months before had been erected at a cost of eighty thousand dollars. He piled the building’s elegant doors, windows, and woodwork on a wagon bound for Titusville, where he would build a new house for his family.

Tarbell set up shop and aligned himself with the independent oil producers. The Tarbells enjoyed many small luxuries, including piano lessons and trips to Cleveland, Ohio, and Chautauqua Lake in western New York. Their prosperity would be short-lived, however. Under the leadership of John D. Rockefeller – who rose in just seven years from a modest bookkeeping position to control ten percent of the country’s oil industry – huge oil refineries in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia were voraciously acquiring small refineries and combining them into larger, more efficient plants. The cost of shipping crude oil suddenly – and inexplicably – doubled for the independents, while a secret alliance, the South Improvement Company, negotiated special rates and railroad rebates. The independent producers found themselves facing an ultimatum – sell out or be snuffed out.

Riots ensued and the independents vowed to block Rockefeller’s oil from getting through. Eventually the South Improvement Company was defeated, but Rockefeller was not. He continued to use every method at his disposal – ethical and otherwise – to control nearly all phases of the oil industry and drive the independent producers out of business.

Fifteen year-old Ida Tarbell believed that discriminatory freight rates violated the Constitution and threatened American democracy. Thirty years later she would do something about it.

Titusville was an exciting place during Tarbell’s adolescence. Her mother entertained visiting lecturers on their way to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, including women’s suffrage leader Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) and abolitionist Mary Livermore (1850-1905). Encouraged by parents who favored women’s rights, especially the right to an education, Ida entered Allegheny College in nearby Meadville in 1876, majoring in natural science. She was “the lone girl in the freshman class of forty hostile and indifferent boys,” but would later be joined by several other ambitious young women.

Jeremiah Tingley, head of the Crawford County college’s department of natural science, ignited her enthusiasm for discovery and taught her one of life’s most important lessons: it is not the outside, but the inside of things that matters. In the laboratory with her beloved microscope, and in her later writing career, she would remember the professor’s words “look inside.”

After graduating from Allegheny College in 1880, Tarbell accepted a teaching position in Ohio, but she returned home two years later to pursue her dream of becoming a microscopist. Her plans were interrupted when she met Dr. Theodore L. Hood, a visiting editor of the Chautauquan magazine and the Chautauqua Daily Herald. Chautauqua, a picturesque lakeside retreat, was rapidly becoming a center for culture and progressive education. Flood asked Ida to help him for a month or two as assistant copyeditor. She was intrigued by the idea of working for a magazine that discussed the burning issues of the day, so she accepted on the spot. Her decision marked a turning point in her life.

For the first time in her life, Tarbell worked side by side with other professional women. Her official tasks were to annotate articles and to provide pronunciations of foreign words, but she soon began writing articles of her own. She wrote about women of the French Revolution and about American women who were not given credit for their inventions and innovations. Two months quickly turned into six years, but by 1890, Tarbell had absorbed all she could from the Chautauquan. “You’re dyin’ of respectability,” bellowed a Scotch Presbyterian minister from the pulpit, reawakening her spirit of adventure. At the age of thirty-three, she packed her bags for Paris, intending to support herself by selling articles on Parisian life to news syndicates in the United States while she worked on a book-length biography of French Revolutionary Madame Roland.

Tarbell settled in the city’s lively Latin Quarter, its narrow streets lined with cafes, theatres, and bistros, and frequented salons where she met intellectuals from throughout the world. Like many expatriate writers and artists, she lived a bohemian lifestyle. “Of course, I have seen a great many things I should like to tell you about,” she wrote to her mother. “The first comes in the line of a confession: I have been to see the Can-Can. Read Mark Twain if you want a description. We all went in, one at a time, with a respectable gentleman who knew of our desire to see a little of the fast side of Paris. But don’t worry about me. I shall neither get the grippe, nor marry a Frenchman.”

Her letters reveal her exuberance for Parisian life, and her stories show a keen awareness of the social issues about which she would later write. She described an organized corps of beggars, life on the Seine, municipal street sweepers, and a former countess who rummaged through garbage but who maintained her dignity.

Back in the United States, Tarbell’s stories caught the eye of Samuel S. McClure (1857-1949), who was among the first to introduce syndicated material to metropolitan newspapers. He had created a vast new readership for serious literature when he discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad. Kipling described the energetic entrepreneur as a “cyclone in a frock coat.”

In the summer of 1892, the “cyclone” made his way to Paris and burst into Tarbell’s apartment, convincing her to write for a new reform-oriented magazine he was planning, McClure’s Magazine. For the next year and a half, she supplied him with articles about life in the City of Light and interviews with French luminaries such as Louis Pasteur, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Emile Zola. “The opening up of opportunities so much more quickly than I had dared dreamed spurred me to longer and harder hours,” she said. “There were few mornings I was not at my desk at eight o’clock; there were few nights that I went to bed before midnight.” Tarbell spent many of those hours conducting research at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and attending lectures at the Sorbonne and the College de France.

Although she relished her Paris sojourn, Tarbell missed her family. News of a plunging stock market, economic uncertainty, and devastating unemployment caused her to rethink her ambitions. Her father’s business partner committed suicide, leaving him with a bundle of debt. Her brother William, working for an independent cooperative, the Pure Oil Company, roiled, against the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was slow in moving against Standard Oil. “Here I was,” she said, “across the ocean writing picayune pieces at a fourth of a cent a word while they struggled there. I felt guilty…”

In 1894, Tarbell packed up her manuscript of Madame Roland’s life and sailed for home. Her time in Titusville would again be fleeting – a position at McClure’s in New York awaited her. McClure paid Tarbell forty dollars a week to serialize a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte to accompany portraits he had found in the possession of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell. Her series was so popular that the magazine’s circulation doubled – to eighty thousand a month – and publisher Charles Scribner snatched up her biography of Madame Roland. Even before her Napoleon sketch was completed, McClure assigned Tarbell to research the early life of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had been dead for only thirty years when Tarbell began her work, and she was able to interview his contemporaries (see “The Lincoln Train is Coming!” by William C. Kashatus, Winter 2002). She spent four years traveling to all parts of the country in search of documents and photographs.

Tarbell did not subscribe to the “Lincoln myth,” as she called it, which portrayed him as an inspired and infallible superman. She drew him more warmly as a human being who lived, learned, and suffered as other people, but who had an insatiable curiosity and dogged perseverance, which “carried him above the procession.”

“The four years I put in on The Life of Abraham Lincoln did more than provide me with a continuing interest,” she recalled. “They aroused my flagging sense that I had a country, that its problems were my problems. Now I was beginning to ask myself why we had gone the way we had since the Civil War. Was there not enough of suffering and of nobility in that calamity to quiet the greed and ambitions of men, to soften their hates, to arouse in them the will to follow Lincoln’s last counsels?”

Tarbell’s body of work would eventually encompass dozens of articles and eight books on Lincoln. Later biographers, including Carl Sandburg, would build upon her astute observations and thorough documentation.

While Tarbell was preparing stories about Napoleon and Lincoln, the moguls of the Gilded Age were designing enormous industrial trusts in sugar, copper, steel, and oil. The idea inspired three investigative series, all to run concurrently in McClure’s Magazine, beginning with the first installment of The History of the Standard Oil Company in the November 1902 issue. Lincoln Steffen’s The Shame of the Cities, an expose of urban political corruption, and Ray Stannard Baker’s The Right to Work, chronicling a United Mine Workers of America strike in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, would graphically reiterate the, need for reform throughout the nation.

Recalling the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tarbell believed that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one maxi.” To make her story more realistic, she would focus her investigation not only on the company, but on John D. Rockefeller himself. Already in her mid-forties, she followed a paper trail like no other journalist of her time. She knew that in Congressional hearings, White House decisions, and various executive branch rulings, as well as by tracking down court records in a number of states, she would find a great deal of information others had overlooked. Tarbell and her research assistant, John M. Siddall, scoured the country to gather information. They found evidence of the company’s collusion with the railroads, strong-arm tactics against independent oil producers, and industrial espionage. Tarbell maintained her goal was not to be controversial, but to provide “a straightforward narrative, as picturesque and dramatic as I can make it, of the great monopoly.”

Tarbell intended to verify her information with the Standard Oil Company, But how was she going to gain direct access to this rich and powerful corporation? Enter Mark Twain, a friend of Samuel S. McClure’s, who introduced Tarbell to Henry “Hellhound” Rogers, a flamboyant Standard Oil tycoon who would become Tarbell’s inside source. Their secret meetings took place in New York at Rogers’s Manhattan residence and at the Standard Oil Company’s headquarters at 26 Broadway.

Before joining Standard Oil, Rogers had been an independent oilman. Left out of Standard Oil’s lucrative railroad deal when he chaired the New York Petroleum Association, he still feuded occasionally with Rockefeller. He was more than willing to share his impressions with Tarbell.

Her first article rocked the nation with its revelations of railroad rebates, brutal competition, and cutthroat practices. Despite the allegations of company wrongdoing in subsequent issues, Rogers continued to help her, until one installment revealed how Standard Oil’s intelligence network operated. He then refused to see her again. Tarbell would later describe Rogers as “as fine a pirate as ever flew his flag on Wall Street.”

When the nineteen-part series was published in two volumes in November 1904, the triumphant McClure praised Tarbell. “You are today the most generally famous woman in America,” he pronounced.

Tarbell saw Rockefeller as the embodiment of evil, and her disgust eventually emerged in her writing. To clinch the series, she wrote an additional installment, a brutal, personal attack on him. It possessed neither the dispassion nor the documentation that the series had, and she received a great deal of criticism for it.

President Theodore Roosevelt borrowed the term “muckraker” from John Bunyan’s immortal classic Pilgrim’s Progress to describe Tarbell and other Progressive Era journalists, charging that they were beginning to go too far by making sweeping allegations against public officials. Prompted by their work, however, the presidential trustbuster would soon lead the charge to break up Standard Oil. On November 18, 1906, the federal government filed suit against the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, its trustees, and sixty-five companies under its control, claiming it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Finally, in May 1911, the United States Supreme Court dissolved Rockefeller’s empire. According to the Binghamton, New York, Morning Sun, “Ida M. Tarbell, the nemesis of John D. Rockefeller who peddles oil and whose articles stopped his financial climb until he is now mere billionaire, is the woman who proved that the pen is mightier than the oil can.”

Tarbell and several staffers had parted ways with McClure and bought The American magazine in 1906. Her muckraking days over, Tarbell continued to write about political issues. Her first series was a history of the protective tariff initiated during the Civil War. The articles were compiled as a book, A Tariff in Our Times, published in 1911. Her next series, The Business of Being a Woman, curiously enough, seemed to repudiate all she had achieved. Women should not try to compete with men, she asserted, and instead should feel content to remain at home.

Oddly, such rules did not seem to apply to Tarbell. A few years later, at an age when most people retired, Tarbell left The American to join the Chautauqua lecture circuit. She was appointed to President Woodrow Wilson’s Women’s Committee for the National Defense and in 1919 traveled to Paris to observe the Armistice at Versailles. After World War I, she worked for Red Cross Magazine in France. She was named to President Warren G. Harding’s Unemployment Conference in 1921.

On assignment for numerous publications, she wrote about mine safety, spurred by the tragedy of Floyd Collins being trapped and eventually dying in a Kentucky coal mine. She wrote about prohibition, believing people should make up their own minds whether or not to drink. She was appalled by the condition of New York City tenements, and came up with a scheme called “Road Town” that would relocate people to more healthy environs in the countryside. She was careful to bolster her contentions with the kind of unemotional, fact-based reporting that had characterized her career in journalism.

Tarbell appeared to soften her stance on business with two biographies: The Life of Elbert H. Gary: The Story of U.S. Steel (1925), followed by Owen D. Young: A New Type of industrial Leader (1932), the story of a Boston lawyer who became chairman of the board of the General Electric Company.

For years Tarbell continued working, commuting between her New York apartment and her fifty-acre farm in Connecticut. She was nearly seventy years old when the editors of McCall’s magazine sent her off in search of a rising Italian dictator named Benito Mussolini. The undersecretary of state warned that she might be arrested, but she could neither refuse the generous contract nor a new adventure. Newspapers across the country observed her seventy-sixth birthday with articles and accolades. In her studio near Gramercy Park, where she stays on weekends,” a writer noted, “she lives surrounded by work and the signs of work. After more than half a century of literary toil, she keeps a Dictaphone by her desk, in a room crowded close with books and files and more files and more books, pressed in everywhere. Books of all kinds.”

Finally, at eighty-two years of age, came her autobiography, appropriately titled All in the Day’s Work. She left her final book, Life after Eighty, unfinished.

Ida M. Tarbell is most remembered for her groundbreaking work on Standard Oil, but it was her study of Lincoln she found most satisfying. She would have been pleased to read the editorial that appeared in the January 7, 1944, edition of the New York Times the day after her death. “Her most persistent literary interest was Abraham Lincoln. Latter-day research has added something to the material she was able to gather, but her work in the field will soon be on any small shelf of Lincoln books for countless years to come. She was as honest, as kind, as thoroughly American in the loftiest sense as he was. He would have loved and understood her as she did him.”


For Further Reading

Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom; Creating the North American Landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell, Portrait of a Muckraker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 1998.

Giddens, Paul. Early Days of Oil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948.

Kochersberger, Robert C., Jr. More than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell’s Lifetime in Journalism. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Lyon, Peter. Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day’s Work, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939.

____. The History of the Standard Oil Company. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904.

____. The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York; Doubleday and McClure, 1900.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.


For a sampling of unpublished works, archival documents, and vintage photographs visit the Ida M. Tarbell Collection website by Allegheny College’s Pelletier Library in Meadville, Crawford County.


Lisa Gensheimer and her husband Richard Gensheimer operate Main Street Media, Inc., am independent television production company located in North East, Erie County. Their documentary, Ida Tarbell: All in the Day’s Work, is airing on sixty public television stations nationwide. The author, a former newspaper editor and public relations professional, earned a degree in journalism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a documentary exploring the Underground Railroad in wester Pennsylvania.