Ida Tarbell and the Spirit of Reform

2018-11-13T14:52:19+00:00 October 5th, 2018|

By Elizabeth Catte

How Ida Tarbell came to write The History of the Standard Oil Company—her landmark 1904 muckraking exposé that directly contributed to the dismemberment of a corporate behemoth and the public downfall of an industry titan—is a fraught subject.

In one version of the investigation’s origin story, the account preferred by John D. Rockefeller sympathists, Tarbell was the vengeful daughter of a dying oil producer cast down in the world by Standard Oil, whose formative years in the derrick-studded towns of the Pennsylvania oil fields primed her for a reckoning. Her father’s tragedies doomed her objectivity, compromised her methods, and compelled her to render a portrait of Rockefeller that his biographer Ron Chernow characterized as “evil incarnate.”

To many of Tarbell’s biographers, however, the choice to investigate Standard Oil was more practical. Samuel McClure, Tarbell’s employer and owner of McClure’s Magazine, believed that monopolies were the “red- hot” subject of the time. Tarbell had earned her reputation, and McClure’s Magazine readers, from biographies of powerful, almost unknowable men. A similar treatment of Rockefeller would play to Tarbell’s skills and her working knowledge of the oil industry, while simultaneously capitalizing on the nation’s antitrust fervor.

The truth of her motives, perhaps, lies somewhere in between. Tarbell, a tidy list-maker and careful researcher, set to the task before her with dispassion and coolness. She did not see herself as a crusader; her aim was only to “give a notion of the process by which a particular industry passed from the control of the many to that of the few.” Nevertheless, she was “always informed by indignation that throbbed just below the surface,” Chernow wrote.

Tarbell saw firsthand the emergence of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, and her family did indeed suffer from its insatiable appetite. She was born in 1857 in pastoral Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, and her father soon moved the family to Cherry Run during the great oil rush, where one estimate counted at least twenty-five oil wells per acre of land. A traveler wrote of their new home, “No one lives amid this sea of oil but those who are making money . . . Men think of oil, talk of oil, dream of oil; the smell and taste of oil predominate all they eat and drink; they breathe an atmosphere of oil-gas and the clamor of ‘ile, ile, ile’ rings in one’s ears from daylight until midnight.”

Franklin Tarbell, Ida’s father, attached his fortunes to the oil business—first as a carpenter constructing storage barrels, then as an oil producer with partnership in a small company. Franklin’s successes allowed the Tarbells to relocate to Titusville in 1870, away from the muck of the oil camps, where business took place not through drills and derricks but the magic of rail, as the region’s precious cargo went forth to fuel the coming of the new century.

Standard Oil - Reissue Cover Image

Illustration by David Wilson.

The railroad, once a blessing, soon became a curse for men like Franklin Tarbell. In 1871, the owners of the Erie, Central, and Pennsylvania railroads struck a deal with Rockefeller, who had established Standard Oil the year prior, to skyrocket oil freight prices and bully small producers into joining his joint venture, the South Improvement Company, which offered members steep transportation discounts and rebates. Franklin, along with most Titusville producers, refused to join. Their organized actions, which included protests and violent unrest, got results. The Southern Improvement Company ceased operations in 1872, but its defeat was only a fleeting set- back in the development of Rockefeller’s oil empire. By the end of the decade, Standard Oil controlled over ninety percent of oil production in the United States. Tarbell later wrote of coming of age during the oil wars that “In that fine fight, there was born in me a hatred of privilege.”

Rockefeller and those who formed the upper echelons of his empire presented themselves as canny businessmen who unapologetically exploited legal loopholes and the vagueness of regulation for the mutual benefit of both consumers and producers. It was well-known, for example, that operating as a trust allowed Rockefeller to proceed with the normally forbidden practice of uniting his companies across state lines. To call these companies “his” might actually be misleading; they were often formed from the remnants of small businesses unable to compete with Standard Oil’s growing monopoly. Rockefeller and his associates would admit to ruthlessness, but never dishonesty. Staying one-step ahead of the law required a healthy respect for it, they argued.

The passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 proved only a minor inconvenience for Rockefeller. The law was ambiguous, leaving interpretation in the hands of pro-business courts, and the government lost the majority of its first cases. In some respects, the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act may have accelerated the growth of monopolies as business leaders observed lax enforcement. The majority of trusts, for example, were formed in the decade after the passage of the act.

But all that was little concern to Tarbell in the moment. A curious obsession with the French Revolution had tempted her to Paris in 1890. After an unenjoyable stint as a teacher in Ohio led her to try her hand as an assistant editor for Chautauquan magazine back home, Tarbell set off to France. In Paris, she met future associate Samuel McClure, a hyperactive editor eager to start a publication that could tap into the public’s enthusiasm for sensational, scandal-filled journalism and redirect it to more enlightened topics.

Tarbell’s work for McClure’s Magazine made her famous. She perfected her brand of investigative journalism by first writing character studies of great change-makers: her serialized profiles of Napoleon and Lincoln marry historical fact and gentle speculation. One reporter called McClure’s circle the “most stimulating, yes intoxicating, editorial atmosphere then existent in America—or anywhere else!”

Rockefeller and Standard Oil, though, would prove to be far more controversial subjects. Her father tried to warn her off the assignment—“Don’t do it Ida—they will ruin the magazine,” he wrote to her—but at the start she didn’t believe her investigation would uncover anything more nefarious that a common tale of greedy businessmen. Villains, to be sure, but doubtful criminals. Nor did she believe the story would attract wide readership. Who would want to read about the day-to-day operations of a large corporation?

Tarbell was wrong on both counts. Standard Oil’s business practices were more ruthless than she had ever thought possible, and in her telling they became a page-turning tale of coercion, deception, and hubris.

The key ingredient for Tarbell’s success came from her unprecedented access to primary source material. Tarbell described her novel approach to a research assistant she hoped to hire: “…the work we have in mind is a narrative history of the Standard Oil Company. I am to do it, and I shall go about it as I would any piece of historical work in which I had to draw almost entirely from original sources. It is in no sense a piece of economic work, nor is it intended to be controversial, but a straightforward narrative, as picturesque and dramatic as I can make it, of the great monopoly.”

Tarbell and her researcher John Siddall, who had also worked for Chautauquan magazine, discovered court transcripts stolen from obvious repositories but preserved in local libraries and archives; they charmed government officials with insider knowledge. A small army of informants shaped her work, from clerks who saw the creation and destruction of Standard Oil’s most secret documents, to avenging widows of doomed businessmen, and even a few of Rockefeller’s own partners, their associations formed not through mutual benefit but coercion. She uncovered price-fixing, sabotage, corporate intimidation, espionage, and a host of other dishonest and illegal practices.

Tarbell’s series debuted just as a coal strike gripped the nation in 1902 that shot up the cost of fuel, both coal and oil, and public patience for the greed of industry barons was thinner than ever. Each installment enlarged her network of sources. Submissions and clues that aided in her discovery of clandestine records became more reliable. McClure’s circulation skyrocketed.

Fellow journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, who had also covered Rockefeller’s business, sent Tarbell a note after the publication of her first articles: “When you get through with ‘Johnnie’ I don’t think there will be very much left of him except something resembling one of his own grease spots.”

McClure’s extended the serial several times, eventually publishing the series in nineteen parts in the magazine and as a two-volume collection in 1904. The following year, Tarbell wrote a standalone character sketch of Rockefeller for McClure’s. Where her History of the Standard Oil Company was clinical and meticulous, her profile of Rockefeller was vicious. She referred to him as a “living mummy,” a man with “a mask and a steel grip, forever peering into hidden places for money, always more money; planning in secret to wrest it away even from his friends, never forgetting, never resting, never satisfied.” Her treatment transformed Rockefeller, in Ron Chernow’s assessment, from “America’s most private man into its most public and hated figure.”

Rockefeller and his closest associates maintained a public code of silence about Tarbell and her work. Influential outlets praised and condemned her investigations in equal measure. The New York Times called her history “the most remarkable book of its kind ever written in this country.” The Nation, however, accused her of being unable to control her passions. Harper’s Weekly suggested that she was motivated by envy and joined in the criticism that she had been sinister and unfair toward a person who did amass a great fortune, yes, but had also dispensed a generous portion of it, guided by his Christian spirit, to charity.

Public outcry and the reform-minded Roosevelt and Taft administrations turned the tide against Standard Oil. In 1906, the Attorney General charged Standard Oil of New Jersey with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and won the case. The Supreme Court affirmed the charges in a 1911 appeal and ordered that Standard Oil be dissolved. The ruling forced Rockefeller to divide his company into thirty-four “baby Standards”: smaller companies that would later become Exxon, Chevron, Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and others. The dragon was slain, but its offspring still thrived.

After Standard Oil, Tarbell continued her work in the spirit of reform. She started her own magazine and became a popular public speaker and lecturer. She also held several appointed advisory positions in both business and government. Her politics and wider social viewpoints sometimes disappointed those who hoped she would be a natural ally. She held the suffrage movement in poor regard—she famously declared that the only reason she was glad to be a woman was that it meant not marrying one—and was a reliable supporter of capitalists of a better sort. She spent her later years mostly at a secluded farm in Connecticut and died from complications from pneumonia in 1944 at the age of eighty-six.

Tarbell disliked the label “muckraker” and preferred to call herself a historian. She nurtured friendships with other industry titans like Henry Ford. She would likely disapprove if you, like me, prefer the version of her story that begins with retribution for personal wrongs. But like Tarbell, I write to you from a world of immense corruption frantic for journalists to take down a powerful man. I write at a time when already-giant corporations grow larger and larger every day, yet the men (nearly always men) who run them are portrayed by the press as visionaries or conquering heroes. If in reading this, you need to yield to the momentary pleasure of imagining a vengeful and indignant Tarbell coming for an enemy near you, I give you permission to do that.

After all, the vast social sicknesses that inspired her generation to take action are still with us. The ease with which the powerful shift blame to the vulnerable, dispossessed, and newly immigrated that compelled Tarbell’s colleague Lincoln Steffens to write The Shame of the Cities is still a grim habit. The virulent and deadly racism documented by Ida B. Wells remains a truth-telling project for our time as well. People still suffer and die in the name of corporate profit. Industries still pass from the control of many to the few.

“A moment’s rage over the horror of it,” Tarbell wrote of the indignities of her era, “and we have sunk into indifference.” Some echoes of the past call back louder to us than others.

 

 

From the introduction to a new edition of Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company, published by Belt Publishing’s Belt Revivals imprint, which is dedicated to reprinting unjustly forgotten, newly resonant works from the American Midwest.

Elizabeth Catte is a historian and writer based in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She is the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and the co-editor of 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike. Her work has appeared in Belt Magazine, the Guardian, the Nation, and Salon. She holds a PhD in public history and is the co-owner of Passel historical consultants.

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