Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ida M. Tarbell

IdaMTarbellPACrawford County, PA

Marker Text: Noted oil historian, biographer of Lincoln, journalist, lived in this house about six years. She was graduated from the Titusville High School in 1875.

Location: At 324 East Main Street (PA Route 27), Titusville, PA. Erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1954.

  "Muckrakers" was the name that Theodore Roosevelt gave journalists of the early part of the 20th century who exposed abuses in American business and government. Ida Tarbell, one of the original muckrakers, was able to help shut down the Standard Oil Company monopoly that had hampered her father's efforts in the oil industry in Pennsylvania. Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, irked by her stinging √©xpose, dubbed her "Miss Tarbarrel."

At the time I took the photo in 2009, the Tarbell home was being restored.  Click any photo to enlarge.

  Ida Minerva Tarbell was born in a log cabin on a farm in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 5, 1857. Her parents were Franklin S. Tarbell and Esther Ann McCullough Tarbell. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, Ida's father became the first manufacturer of wooden oil tanks after oil was discovered not far from this home in Titusville, PA. The Tarbell family first moved to Rouseville, a village on Oil Creek south of Titusville and later to this house in Titusville.

  Ida was still very young when the family moved to Rouseville to take advantage of Pennsylvania's budding oil industry. In school, Ida became fascinated by her science classes. At Titusville conditions were better for the girl, who was sent to good schools and graduated from Titusville High School and later to Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, located west of Titusville in the same county. At Allegheny College she majored in biology, where she received the A. B. degree in 1880, the only woman to graduate in a class of forty and then earned the M. A. degree in 1883.

  After graduation Miss Tarbell taught school for some time at Poland, Ohio, but she was not in her element and found little to challenge her there. She was asked to do some work for The Chautauquan. Eventually she became managing editor of the publication and stayed for eight years.

  In 1891, however Ida had grown restless and she left Pennsylvania and went to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne and the College de France in Paris for three years. She became keenly interested in biography and history and wrote her first historical studies on Mme. De Stael and Mme. Roland. In Paris, Tarbell wrote articles for American papers and magazines to pay for her living expenses.


Photo of the Tarbell home as it looked in 1890 from second historical marker at site.  Marker states Ida moved here at age 13 and her father built the house.

  One day, she was visited by S. S. McClure, who asked her to contribute special articles for his magazine. Her first assignment was a study of Napoleon Bonaparte. Her series on Napoleon for McClure's Syndicate gained both Tarbell and McClure's wide acclaim. The series was published as a book in 1895 and was a commercial success.

  But Miss Tarbell's fame as a biographer was chiefly in her studies of Abraham Lincoln. She wrote "The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln" in collaboration with W. J. McCan Davis. In 1900 her "Life of Abraham Lincoln" appeared in two volumes. Other volumes on Lincoln by Miss Tarbell were "He Knew Lincoln," "Father Abraham," "In Lincoln's Chair," "Boy Scouts' Life of Lincoln," "He Knew Lincoln and Other Billy Brown Stories," "In the Footsteps of Lincoln" and "A Reporter for Lincoln." A similar series on Abraham Lincoln was also successfully published as a book in 1900.


From section of the second marker, there is photo of Ida Tarbell and her father and a photo of the Postal Service Stamp made in her honor in 2002.

  In 1899, investigative journalist Henry Lloyd Demarest jested that "The Standard Oil has done everything with the Pennsylvania legislature except to refine it." And in truth, since putting the Standard Oil Corporation together in 1878, John D. Rockefeller had bent and bribed the state government to his will.

  Around the time the Lincoln series was wrapping up, Tarbell began to do some research for a series on Standard Oil, the company which had created a virtual monopoly in the Pennsylvania oil industry. When she was still a student, her father had suffered losses because of Standard Oil's dubious business dealings. Partly motivated by her memories, she uncovered a long-standing arrangement between Standard Oil and the local railroads that gave Standard Oil enormous breaks on freight prices. Other refiners, hamstrung by high freight costs, couldn't compete with Standard and were driven out of business.

  Between 1902 and 1904, McClure's published nineteen installments of Tarbell's detailed account of the history of Standard Oil: of the bribery, manipulation, cut-throat tactics, and criminal actions that had given Rockefeller a near monopoly of the American oil industry. The rise of Standard Oil was a story about Pennsylvania, for here the American industry had begun after the discovery of oil near Titusville in 1859, and here Rockefeller had made much of his fortune.


Additional photo of Tarbell home taken in 2009.  Second marker is in the foreground.  Click any photo to enlarge.

  In 1904, McClure, Philips, and Co. released The History of the Standard Oil Company as a two-volume book. Pushed by public outrage from her account, the federal government in 1906 prosecuted Standard Oil under terms of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. In 1911, the government won its landmark case. For the first time, the Anti-Trust Act had been used for the purpose it was passed, to break up a large corporation that engaged in "restraint of trade," rather than serve as the instrument that the courts and their business allies used to bust strikes and labor unions.

  The History of Standard Oil turned Tarbell into a national celebrity. She was the most prominent woman among a new generation of investigative journalists whom President Theodore Roosevelt termed "muckrakers," "muck" being an old English word for excrement.

  After her father died in 1905, and McClure the following year, Tarbell moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she used her royalties and stock in McClure's to purchase the American Magazine. There she attacked the protective tariffs that by driving up the prices of imported goods enabled American corporations to rake in huge profits that all too often benefited neither workers nor consumers.

  After 1915, a large part of Tarbell's schedule included the lecture circuit. She became interested in the peace effort, serving on many committees. She continued to write and to teach biography, and she published on a wide range of topics into her eighties, including a 1926 interview with Benito Mussolini and an autobiography, All In the Day's Work, in 1939. She died at age eighty-six on her farm in Connecticut.

  On September 14, 2002, The United States Postal Service issued a stamp set called Four Women in Journalism commemorating Ida Tarbell and three other women journalists—Marguerite Higgins, Ethel Payne and Nellie Bly.

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