Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Ida Tarbell
    Book Description:

    In this first definitive biography of Ida Tarbell, Kathleen Brady has written a readable and widely acclaimed book about one of America's great journalists.Ida Tarbell's generation called her "a muckraker" (the term was Theodore Roosevelt's, and he didn't intend it as a compliment), but in our time she would have been known as "an investigative reporter," with the celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein. By any description, Ida Tarbell was one of the most powerful women of her time in the United States: admired, feared, hated. When herHistory of the Standard Oil Companywas published, first inMcClure's Magazineand then as a book (1904), it shook the Rockefeller interests, caused national outrage, and led the Supreme Court to fragment the giant monopoly.A journalist of extraordinary intelligence, accuracy, and courage, she was also the author of the influential and popular books on Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, and her hundreds of articles dealt with public figures such as Louis Pateur and Emile Zola, and contemporary issues such as tariff policy and labor. During her long life, she knew Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Henry James, Samuel McClure, Lincoln Stephens, Herbert Hoover, and many other prominent Americans. She achieved more than almost any woman of her generation, but she was an antisuffragist, believing that the traditional roles of wife and mother were more important than public life. She ultimately defended the business interests she had once attacked.To this day, her opposition to women's rights disturbs some feminists. Kathleen Brady writes of her: "[She did not have] the flinty stuff of which the cutting edge of any revolution is made. . . . Yet she was called to achievement in a day when women were called only to exist. Her triumph was that she succeeded. Her tragedy ws that she was never to know it."

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8016-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Foreword
    (pp. 5-6)

    Ida Tarbell is the first woman I ever encountered in my history books. I was nine years old and my female consciousness embryonic indeed, but the discovery of a woman in the masculine preserve of American greatness captivated and encouraged me. I had just discovered the delights of writing and of being published in our own mimeographed school newspaper and when I saw her listed as a crusader and reformer, I understood for the first time that words had the power not only to capture life, but to change it.

    When I decided to write this book, in 1979, women...


    • One An Unaccommodating Child
      (pp. 9-25)

      In May 1873, a tall, silk-hatted businessman walked through the streets of Titusville, Pennsylvania, extending to a distrustful local populace the olive branch of a fresh deal. Thwarted the year before in his attempt to take over the entire oil business, John D. Rockefeller, onetime purveyor of groceries, was trying again. In his early middle age, a Clevelander dissatisfied with control of only one-third of the market, he took the precaution of visiting the oil region in a party of colleagues. Through his associates, he asked independent petroleum producers to join with him in limiting output and maintaining price. Most...

    • Two Pantheistic Evolutionist
      (pp. 26-34)

      When Ida Tarbell entered Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, just before her nineteenth birthday, she felt she had reached her spiritual home. The cornerstone of Bentley Hall, a three-story brick building topped by a cupola, had been laid fifty-six years before, which seemed an aeon to one used to the oil regions. She revered Bentley as the first tangible sign that anything could be permanent.

      The campus embraced paths and drives and a ravine through which flowed a rocky stream. It was the Forest of Arden and she was Rosalind taking on a boy’s ways for her own ends. Her...

    • Three A Young Lady of Fine Literary Mind
      (pp. 35-48)

      TheChautauqua Assembly Heraldnoted in the summer of 1883: “This unique little paper will be enriched by the pen of Miss Ida M. Tarbell, a young lady of fine literary mind, endowed with the peculiar gift of a clear and forcible expression.... Her wide reading and versatile brain, together with her love for children and lively sympathies for Christianity, will make her services of rare value to young people as an editor of this paper.”¹

      The camp on Lake Chautauqua where the Tarbells spent their summers had grown into a permanent village of white cottages with high pointed eaves...


    • Four Une Femme Travailleuse
      (pp. 51-68)

      “There is nothing more curious than the state of dilation of the American when he first sets foot in Europe. Reserve is broken, discretion is forgotten, sentiment glows. He returns for a period to the naive expansiveness of his childhood. Sometimes weeks pass before he recovers his normal attitude of mind, or he is shocked into a realization of his condition.”¹

      Thus Ida Tarbell described her situation in August 1891. She had never known that a place could enfold her and captivate so completely. Strangers were responsive. Boys on the stairs tipped their hats, patrons greeted her in restaurants, and...

    • Five The French Salon
      (pp. 69-84)

      The French literary world was now open to Ida, good fortune she credited to her ability to get names mentioned in American periodicals. She was judicious about where she went and how often she visited, because she could not easily repay hospitality. Jo, Mary, Annie Towle, and she had had at homes during which they boiled tea on an alcohol lamp, but she could not imagine Mme Blanc enjoying such “a lark” nor could she picture Arvède Barine conversing in Ida’s room at Rue Malebranche. But with her serviceable black dress, quick wit, and professional contacts, she did enter French...


    • Six The Americanization of Ida Tarbell
      (pp. 87-119)

      Ida Tarbell invited McClure to call upon her if he needed her during her vacation and he did. She went to work for him, not in October as editor of the Youth’s Department, but in July as biographer of Napoleon Bonaparte.

      After the initial joy of being home, Ida’s time in western Pennsylvania had not been a success. She was treated by neighbors with deference for having been abroad, but was expected to do an impossible thing—to confirm that America, especially its women, was superior to Europe in every way.

      The Tarbell family fortune, like that of the rest...

    • Seven Lady of the Muckrake
      (pp. 120-160)

      McClure’s Magazinehad been too dispirited by the end of the nineteenth century to take much joy in the start of the twentieth. The new era saw many changes in the magazine, particularly in terms of its personnel. Phillips was absent several months recovering from exhaustion, Jaccaci moved to Europe. Albert Brady, wizard ofMcClure’sbusiness office, died, and McClure, his energy turned to mania, was in France under a physician’s care.

      Ray Stannard Baker noted: “For most members of the staff, long continued overwork, nervous tension and excitement had begun to extract the price of high-flown ambition and swift...

    • Eight Unexplored Land
      (pp. 161-177)

      John D. Rockefeller was not the only one to feel the brunt of Tarbell’s anger; there was still some left for Sam McClure. She, Phillips, and Boyden took it upon themselves to try to curb his philandering. They felt his conduct made the preeminent journal of expose a target for exposure itself. By loosening his morality, McClure had stepped outside their circle and seemed to be betrayingMcClure’s Magazine.Tarbell, Phillips, and Boyden were by turns a cabal promoting their own views and a vice squad of Keystone Kops.

      McClure’s dalliance became an office scandal after he directed poetry editor...

    • Nine A Second Crusade
      (pp. 178-200)

      Ida Tarbell allowed herself no time to feel the aftershocks of the split from McClure. She went on the road to enlist backers in a new venture—The American Magazine.Started asLeslie’s Weeklyover thirty years before, it had skirted muckraking but regularly discussed public affairs as well as offering fiction and humor. It was now up for sale and theMcClure’srebels decided to set up their own publication with Phillips as the deserving head.

      In order to buy the magazine, they needed $460,000 of which $160,000 was required in a few months. Tarbell and Phillips expected to...

    • Ten A Bad Woman
      (pp. 201-212)

      Ida Tarbell, who had thought herself radical and bohemian in her college days, now found that she was one of the most conservative women speaking out. She had achieved economic independence, but she was still limited by expectations of what women were to be. Not having accepted woman’s destiny for herself, she approved it for others. Her ambition had spun her out into the world; her preconceptions hurled her back to where she had come from, and her mind wheeled round, pulled by two opposing forces.

      The Woman Question of the early twentieth century was composed of two parts. The...


    • Eleven Workhorse
      (pp. 215-242)

      Ida Tarbell was wrong in thinking she had avoided “entangling alliances.” She had been ensnared from birth in the mesh of her family. In the late 1910s, family ties tightened and knotted her fate for the rest of her life—her brother Will suffered a mental breakdown. According to personal letters, it was soon clear to Sarah and Ida that he had unwittingly done the Tarbell fortunes as much damage as John D. Rockefeller had.

      Because the bankers of Titusville knew Will, they had allowed him to overborrow on his share of Franklin Tarbell’s estate. When his loans were due...

    • Twelve At Rest
      (pp. 243-255)

      Her body was willing enough to tell her she was getting old, but even if her legs had not begun to stiffen and her hand to tremble violently, the changed world around her would have testified to the passing of time. Headlines about John D. Rockefeller’s latest philanthropies had replaced those of years before which questioned how he made his money, and the new generation admired and respected him. On the lecture circuit, she saw villages on railroad lines fade while those along highways flourished. Finally, “Chautauquas” gave way to the increasing popularity of radio and brought an end to...