It’s been a busy few days here at Speaking Up! Today, another Google Doodle has been posted, this time in honor of industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Here, we’ll look at someone else who dealt with industry, but in a very different way: progressive-era, pioneering, “muckraking” journalist Ida Tarbell. Tarbell is among the most Doodle-Worthy figures I’ve had the pleasure of writing about here at Speaking Up.
Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, near Erie, Pennsylvania, to a family that worked in the oil industry on a small scale. She pursued higher education in Paris and her writing landed her the job of editor at McClure’s Magazine. Her work there earned her a national reputation and greatly increased the popularity of the magazine. Tarbell focused on long investigative pieces, including lengthy and popular biographical series on Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.
By 1900, Tarbell was investigating the story that she is known for today: uncovering the business practices and impact of the Standard Oil Company under the leadership of John D. Rockefeller. Tarbell’s family’s small-scale oil work had become impossible due to the innovative anti-competition practices of Standard Oil; this had a broader impact on Pennsylvania’s economy, which inspired Tarbell’s work. Tarbell worked closely and directly with Standard Oil insiders, including prominent director Henry Rogers. She built upon this foundation with thousands of documents and dozens of interviews with experts in a range of fields related to Standard Oil’s practices. The resulting work has been praised for its thoroughness, as well as for Tarbell’s ability to break complex interactions down for the average reader while also creating a sense of drama.
Tarbell’s exposé was first serialized in McClure’s, then published as a book. When it was published, Standard Oil controlled 91% of oil production in the United States. Based on her work and the public outcry it prompted, Standard Oil was found by the Supreme Court to be violating antitrust laws. The monopoly was then broken up into many smaller companies. The book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, is considered one of the greatest works of investigative journalism in the history of the U.S., and inspired much further journalistic activity in the muckraking era.
Following this landmark work, Tarbell continued to be an important figure in American journalism and publishing, going on to own her own magazine. She was also known as an expert on Abraham Lincoln and was the author of an autobiography, published in 1939. The New York Times named her as one of the most important women in America in 1922. Tarbell’s name comes up in every U.S. history class, and she is an inductee to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She has been honored with a stamp issued by the USPS, and her home was designated a National Historic Landmark.