Ida Tarbell — the sharp, powerful arrow of her words (part 1)

March 25, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When Ida Tarbell fired an arrow of words at a target, she aimed with the accuracy and power of a book full of facts.

John D. Rockefeller, probably the richest man in the world at the time, was “the oldest man in the world — a living mummy,” a “hypocrite” who was “money-mad.” She concluded, “. . . our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.”

The book of facts with which she supported such conclusions was her own A History of Standard Oil, something that she had spent five years of her life compiling. She had read through thousands of pages of documents, including many obscure court filings where entrepreneurs had filed suit against Rockefeller and Standard Oil for its corrupt and predatory practices. She had interviewed dozens of people — some inside the company itself and many victims of the company — to piece together the methods that Rockefeller had used to destroy his competition. 

Tarbell’s prose in fashioning her 19-part series for McClure’s Magazine was straightforward and workman-like. She never considered herself a great stylist. But she could marshall facts and make them understandable.

The series began in 1902. By the time it was finished, Rockefeller’s reputation had been destroyed. He was at least smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He never responded to the articles or the book, but privately he called Tarbell “poisonous” and “misguided.”

Tarbell’s articles fueled the public’s anger against the “trusts” and eventually led to the breakup of Standard Oil and the strengthening of anti-trust legislation.

For Tarbell, the story of Standard Oil was always, in part, personal. She had grown up in Pennsylvania, the daughter of an oil entrepreneur whose business had been ruined by the company’s nefarious ways. As a female in the 19th century, Tarbell knew what path most women took — marriage and motherhood — and she decided she’s didn’t want to go there. In 1876 she went to Allegheny College to study biology, but she realized that reporting and writing were her strengths.

After graduating in 1880, she tried teaching for a couple of years but found this less than satisfying. She began writing articles for various publications, and the more she researched and wrote, the better she became at it. She got a job as an editor of The Chautauquan in New York. When the paper ran an article by another woman that claimed that women were no good as inventors and that there were only about 300 that had been issued to women, Tarbell wondered if this was really the truth. She traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met someone in the U.S. Patents Office who had compiled a list of more than 2,000 women who held patents.

Tarbell looked at those patents and concluded: “Three things worth knowing and believing: that women have invented a large number of useful articles; that these patents are not confined to ‘clothes and kitchen’ devices as the skeptical masculine mind avers; that invention is a field in which woman has large possibilities.”


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