Encyclopedia Womannica

Best Of: Ida Tarbell

Episode Summary

Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) was a daring journalist who challenged one of the most powerful tycoons in modern history.

Episode Notes

All month, we're revisiting our favorite episodes.  Tune in to hear the highlights of Womannicans past!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, Brittany Martinez, Edie Allard and Lindsey Kratochwill. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, Ale Tejeda, and Sundus Hassan.

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s story is about a daring journalist who challenged one of the most powerful tycoons in modern history. We’re talking about Ida Tarbell.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born in a log cabin in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, in 1857. Her mother, Esther Ann McCullough, was a teacher, and her father, Franklin Summer Tarbell, was a teacher turned oilman. The Pennsylvania oil rush began soon after Ida’s birth, changing the local economy and her family’s fortune. Her father built wooden oil storage tanks. In 1860, when Ida’s family moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, Franklin switched to oil production and refining. Ida later wrote about that time period. She said the surrounding area “had been developed into an organized industry which was now believed to have a splendid future. Then suddenly this gay, prosperous town received a blow between the eyes.”

At the age of 14, Ida witnessed the disastrous effects of what would later be called the Cleveland Massacre. Small oil businessmen in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania like her father faced an impossible choice: to sell their businesses to the Standard Oil Company, owned by the clever John D. Rockefeller, or attempt to compete and likely go bankrupt. The Standard Oil Company secretly worked with railroads to hike up the price of shipping for independent oil businessmen like Ida’s father, while maintaining cheaper shipping costs for Standard Oil. By the end of this scheme, Rockefeller owned 85 percent of the local refineries. 

Though still a teenager, Ida was deeply marked by this “oil war”, and it would come to define her legacy almost 30 years later. 

When she was 19, Ida went to Allegheny College to study biology. After graduating as the only woman in her class, she became a teacher. But she soon realized she preferred writing. She worked at a teaching publication in Pennsylvania, where she developed her voice and style.

Then at the age of 34, Ida moved to Paris. She freelanced for American publications before meeting Samuel Sydney McClure. He was looking for writers for his new publication, the monthly McClure’s Magazine. 

There, Ida wrote a long and well-received series on Napoleon Bonaparte, followed by an immensely popular 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln. It doubled the magazine’s circulation and landed her a book deal.

A few years later, in 1900, a more urgent topic demanded her attention. The Progressive Era had begun, a period of intense social and political reform in the United States. Ida helped usher in the field of investigative journalism as a muckraker, a term for journalists that sought to expose corrupt individuals and institutions. With the support of McClure’s Magazine, she set her sights on the Standard Oil Company.

Ida’s father warned her not to antagonize Rockefeller. But Ida pressed on. For almost two years, she dove into volumes of public records -- court testimony, government reports, and newspapers. 

She also relied on an important source from within Standard Oil. One of the first people she interviewed was a man who had worked alongside her father as an independent oilman in Pennsylvania: Henry H. Rogers. After the Cleveland Massacre, Rogers worked for Rockefeller and helped build Standard Oil into one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. 

Rogers, who thought Ida was working on a positive spin about the company’s rise, actually approached her to share his experience. When Ida came to Rogers’ home for the interview, he was remarkably honest. He even gave her access to some internal documents. 

Ida had an analytical mind and the patience necessary to gathe an immense amount of research. In the end, she painted a mind-boggling picture of Rockefeller’s rise and the methods behind it. 

Ida’s detailed exposé of Rockefeller’s unethical tactics was an instant hit. The series grew to 19 installments, published over the course of two years. Though she did not condemn capitalism itself, she denounced the Standard Oil Company’s strategy. Ida wrote this about Rockefeller: “our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.” 

Public fury led to the breakup of Standard Oil. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the company was violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Standard Oil was broken into 34 separate companies, which include ExxonMobil and Chevron today. Even so, Rockefeller continued to enjoy a life of ridiculous wealth. 

Ida’s series, "The History of the Standard Oil Company" became a book. In 1999, it was listed as number 5 on a list of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism. Her work was a landmark in the history of investigative reporting.

On January 6, 1944, Ida Tarbell died from pneumonia. She was 86 years old.

All month, we’re talking about journalists. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!