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

In the summer of 1905, as Ida M. Tarbell’s muckraking History of the Standard Oil Company had completed its long serial run in McClure’s Magazine and been published as a book, Miss Tarbell received an envelope addressed to:

Miss Ida M. Tarbell
Rockefeller Station

Inside was a caustic letter from a reader who was furious with her attack on Standard Oil, but since such counter­attacks were common arrivals in the daily mail, Miss Tarbell was not surprised. Even the address, by itself, was understandable, but what utterly astonished her was the fact that the Post Office had accepted the address as legitimate and delivered the letter to her in record time and without ques­tion. She must have turned the envelope in her hand and puzzled uncomfortably over what the larger world knew – or thought it knew – about her.

A few months later the world’s “knowledge” of her broadened again. On November 20 a new play opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, Charles Klein’s The Lion and the Mouse, the heroine of which, thought audiences and reviewers alike, bore a striking resemblance to Ida Tarbell. It was a political play, part of a new movement toward realism in American drama and, given popular interest in muckrake journalism and the Progressive hunt for corruption in government and business, Klein’s work was a smashing success. Its 686 continuous performances marked the longest run of any American play on the New York stage up to that time. The plot concerned Shirley Rossmore, a crusading journalist who does battle with John Burkett Ryder – an obvious stand-in for Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller – the most powerful oil baron in America. Rossmore’s campaign is an ethical, moral one, characterized by this exchange with Ryder:

SHIRLEY: So you think your life is a good example to follow.
RYDER: Isn’t it?
SHIRLEY: Suppose we all wanted to follow it, suppose we all wanted to be the richest, the most powerful personage in the world –
RYDER: Well?
SHIRLEY: I think it would postpone the Era of the Brotherhood of Man, indefinitely – don’t you?
RYDER: I never looked at it from that point of view ….

Whether it be as a devil or a crusader, Ida Tarbell was becoming a well-known figure on the American scene.

Miss Tarbell herself, of course, thought she was neither devil nor crusader. In her own mind she was an historian, nothing more but also nothing less. But if a gap spread between what she knew of herself and what the public knew or imagined about her she could often do little more than deplore it without quite knowing how to bridge it. This was partly because throughout most of her life – and despite her aggressive pursuit of a career in popular journalism – Tarbell was an unusually private personality. She was often in de­mand as a writer and speaker, but her private life and the bulk of her private thinking never became the subject of public scrutiny. Her reluctance about revealing herself goes a long way toward explaining why historians are just beginning to realize the existence of a layer of thought and action which lay beneath the surface of her personality-the Ida Tarbell nobody knew.

Apart from the distortions already noted, of course, many of Miss Tarbell’s contemporaries knew some of the more mundane facts of her career. She was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857, and, but for the nationwide financial panic of that year, she might have grown up in rural Iowa instead of Pennsylvania’s bustling Oil Region. Her father, Franklin Sumner Tarbell, had gone west to buy a farm and establish his family in Iowa, but hard times drove him back. “shabby and broke,” as he predicted in a letter anticipating his return to Erie County where he decided to remain. Yet farming was only one of the things Frank Tar­bell could do. Another was carpentry, and when oil was dis­covered near Titusville the year he returned in 1859, he put this skill to use manufacturing wooden storage tanks for the oil other men were pumping out of the ground. The family prospered and moved first to Rouseville and then to Titusville itself, the center of the region’s new petroleum industry.

The opening chapter of Ida Tarbell’s later History of the Standard Oil Company, with its compelling evocation of the social and moral chaos resulting from the Oil Region’s hasty transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society, owes much of its power to Tarbell’s own watchful experience of it. Nature scarred by oil spills and men burned in terrible fires were things she saw with her own eyes. Prostitutes and “whiskey-sellers” came to the Oil Region, too, moving from one community to another on big flatboats completely outfitted for their trade. “They came to Rouseville,” she recalled from her own girlhood there, – a collection of pine shanties and oil derricks, built on a muddy flat – as forlorn and disreputable a town in appearance as the earth ever saw. They tied up for trade, and the next morning woke up from their brawl to find themselves twenty miles away, floating down the Allegheny River. Rouseville meant to be decent. She had cut them loose, and by such summary vigilance she kept herself decent.”

In 1876 Miss Tarbell went to Meadville and enrolled in Allegheny College. Her mother was interested in the women’s rights movement and had introduced her to some of the moderate feminists who were occasional guests in the Tarbell home. She met Frances Willard and Mary Livermore this way and listened to a great deal of talk about the insti­tution of marriage and education for women. Allegheny had opened its classrooms to women a few years before but in the fall of 1876 only four other women were enrolled, and Miss Tarbell was the only woman in a freshman class with forty men. By the time she graduated four years later the proportion of women students had increased, but through­out her college career she was conscious of her minority status and studied with special zeal for fear the faculty and trustees were watching and might rethink their assumptions about the educability of women.

Her major interest in college was biology, but after a short, disillusioning period of teaching at the Poland (Ohio) Union Seminary, Miss Tarbell returned to Meadville in 1883 and began an apprenticeship in journalism on the staff of the Chautauquan magazine, an apprenticeship which soon developed into a full-fledged profession over the next six decades of her life.

The Chautauquan, edited by Dr. Theodore L. Flood, was the official organ of the Chautauqua Institution which orig­inated in the 1870’s as a manifestation of the larger late­-nineteenth-century interest in self-improvement and popular culture. Under the leadership of Dr. John H. Vincent, a Methodist minister, the Institute sponsored lecture series and reading programs designed to educate masses of people who had missed earlier, more formal learning opportunities. Miss Tarbell’s duties involved editing the texts published in the magazine to support various reading programs, but she also wrote short biographical sketches of famous historical figures, book reviews, and social criticism, including some attention to women in history and women’s place in con­temporary life.

At the end of seven years, however, she was restless and eager to pursue her historical studies farther afield than Meadville or the Chautauquan allowed and in 1891 sailed for Paris. She had become interested in Madam Roland, moder­ate and doomed leader of an influential salon during the French Revolution, and wanted to begin work at once on a book-length biography. Miss Tarbell supported herself abroad by writing about Parisian life for American maga­zines and newspapers, including one of her few attempts at fiction, a charming but highly mannered story Scribner’s Magazine published in 1892 called “France Adoreé.”

It was through her “bread-and-butter” writing that she met S. S. McClure, the dynamic, barely predictable editor who was to become as important in the shaping of her career as anyone. His newspaper feature syndicate gave her a market for her writing, and, shortly after he launched McClure’s Magazine in 1893, he invited her to join his staff in New York, first as a feature writer, and later as an editor helping to design the very policy on which the magazine operated. Miss Tarbell’s service with McClure lasted from the early 1890’s to 1906, and during that time she published the work which brought her to the forefront of her profession and placed her in the public eye. Her popular biog­raphies of Napoleon Bonaparte (1894-5) and Abraham Lincoln (1895-6) helped to build McClure’s circulation, and, of course, her History of the Standard Oil Company (1902- 4) steeped the magazine and herself in as much controversy as either had faced before.

Her life – from Erie County, Pennsylvania, to the big world of New York journalism – was known, at least super­ficially, to many of her contemporaries. Much of it was part of the public record. Few people were aware of the larger stratum of existence and concern which lay beneath the sur­face. One reason for this lack of awareness is that Miss Tar­bell deliberately concealed her interior life, even from the historians whom she knew would later want to reconstruct her past. When she wrote her autobiography in the 1930’s, for example, she put very little in it concerning her state of mind from one point in her life to the next.

“I wouldn’t be willing to do it,” she told a friend who read the book in manuscript and commented on just this lack, “and even if I should try it I should do it very badly because of my natural dislike to reveal inner life.” She called her memoir All in the Day’s Work to emphasize its very practical content.

Before she died in 1944 Miss Tarbell gave her private papers to the Reis Library of Allegheny College, but valu­able as the collection is for many purposes, researchers find little in it which offers a look into her personal life. None­theless, a few documents in her handwriting survive to tell us more, perhaps, than she wanted others to know. They are the tip of an iceberg. One such document is the brief diary she kept between May 5, 1905, and April 12, 1906. It was by no means a regular diary, and historians have read it mostly for the account Miss Tarbell gives of the break-up of McClure’s editorial staff in the spring of 1906. Yet all the entries give the unmistakable impression of the writer trying to account for herself, often in very personal terms. Consider, for example, the first entry on May 5, 1905:

“Bought nearly two months ago and not a word written, bought as books of this sort have been before for a com­panion and so dead to life I could not use a companion. There has come a point where it is life or death-in-life & I am not willing to give up life. If the innermost recesses are to be entered I must go there alone. I am conscious so much of myself is evading me, & this poor little book is a feeble prop in my effort to reach the land I’ve never explored.”

It is a pity indeed that she did not find the diary a useful probe along the path to “the land I’ve never explored,” for the entries are irregular and historians lost – as she did her­self – a chance to see into her life more clearly. But there is something haunting about these lines and a sense of Miss Tarbell in search of herself even as we are in search of her. The year 1905 was a high point in her public career, yet inside she was troubled by something barely definable even to herself.

Other entries offer further glimpses into her private thoughts. Two days after she first wrote in the diary some friends invited her to a dinner party in honor of Henry James, and the long account of that dinner is virtually breathless with enthusiasm. She recounts a fascinating mis­cellany of the evening’s events: bits of table talk, her own frustrating shyness with the great author, James’ kind words about her (“She has a striking personality.”), and even one of the lessons she drew from James’ very presence: “To compre­hend all – to wade boldly into life, & yet – never let the liv­ing, the experience injure you. To keep always the mastery of it.” The entries she wrote a year later when McClure’s famous editorial staff broke with S. S. McClure, bought the rival American Magazine and installed themselves as its editors tell historians much about these dramatic events, but they tell us just as much about Ida Tarbell. She was a major participant in the revolt and because McClure was closer to her than he was with the others-Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, for example – the break­up was for her an especially wrenching experience. She and McClure alternately talked and wept their way through the difficult financial and legal arrangements surround­ing the departure. When, much later, Miss Tarbell’s col­leagues, including Baker and Steffens, wrote their autobiographies, they remembered her as a calm, charming, matronly figure in the office, and even Miss Tarbell’s own memoir, All in the Day’s Work, does not depart much from that image of self-possession. But her diary suggests another level, at least, of behavior. and perhaps a deeper one.

One final aspect of the Miss Tarbell nobody knew concerns her attitudes toward the women’s rights movement. It was widely assumed at the time she emerged as a significant figure in journalism that she supported the broad front of activities, including suffrage, designed to widen the political and economic role of women in American society. After all, she had personally demonstrated the usefulness of education for women and seemed to be successful in a profession dom­inated by men. Yet her attitude toward feminism was marked more by ambivalence than by resolution. At various stages in her life Miss Tarbell seemed torn between wanting to embrace and wanting to reject the traditional role of women as wives and homemakers. As a girl, for example, she observed her mother’s frustrating attempts to reconcile her family role with higher aspirations. Yet in the face of that problem, it is significant that the feminist whom both mother and daughter listened most to in the 1870’s were moderates like Frances Willard, who was more interested in what women could do through suffrage and other means to secure good homes for their families than she was in women’s rights per se. When Miss Tarbell went to college she liked studying but she also liked living in a dormitory called “The Snowflake” because it was close to a men’s building and made flirting easier. The conflict between intellectual and social life, unreal as it seems today, was nonetheless very real for Miss Tarbell. Still later she went to Paris and really enjoyed the sense of adventure and independence which was supposed to be beyond a woman in her mid-thirties. Yet even in Paris one has reason to believe that she was continuing to question whether she should try to live a life outside the normal expectations of society. Her story, “France Adoreé,” for example, which is ostensibly a character sketch of a charming old French immigrant, can also be read, especially in the sentimental character of Bertha Lang, a young American living in Paris, as an expression of Miss Tarbell’s longing to be understood first and foremost as a woman, with a woman’s supposedly natural affectability and senti­mentality.

The fullest expression of her thoughts on women’s rights came in a series of articles she wrote for the American and later published in book form as The Business of Being a Woman in 1914. The volume constituted a thoroughgoing attack on the doctrines of nineteenth-century feminism and a defense of women’s allegedly natural role as wives and homemakers. It was a remarkable set of arguments coming from a woman who had once, as a girl, prayed on her knees that she be spared the prison of marriage, decided thereafter to be neither wife nor mother, and pursued a professional career as full, as extensive, and as independent as any man’s. Yet it was in that very irony that her life-long ambivalence on the “woman question” was encapsulated.

This question is only one of many that intrigue and be­guile the potential biographer of Ida Tarbell. What we know about her seems superficial, and what we want to know will be difficult to recover. But the barest hints that more can be known and that the undiscovered parts of her character are worth the effort it will take to reveal them will surely draw more researchers to the task.


Dr. Robert Stinson is an assistant professor of history at Moravian College, Bethlehem.