Happy Birthday, Ida Tarbell, Mother of Muckraking

“Rockefeller and his associates did not build the Standard Oil Co. in the board rooms of Wall Street banks. They fought their way to control by rebate and drawback, bribe and blackmail, espionage and price cutting, by ruthless efficiency of organization.” – Ida Tarbell

It’s Ida Tarbell’s birthday, the journalist who became the bane of John D. Rockefeller’s existence with her ground-breaking and hugely influential (understatement) series of scathing articles about Standard Oil’s rapacious practices, published in 1902. Those articles brought down a monolith.

She was one of the first journalists who earned the brand-new nickname “muckraker” – Theodore Roosevelt called out Tarbell specifically. (Tarbell didn’t care for the name.) In the journalistic free-for-all of her day, she was tireless and tenacious, as well as developing new techniques for getting the story out (like digging into long-forgotten dusty archives: Tarbell was all about primary sources – none of this “people say” shit, none of this accepting other people’s conclusions as gospel. Tarbell dug through old account ledgers, going through it line by line, etc. – something very few have the patience for). Tenacious doesn’t even begin to cover her approach or her personality. “Going after” Standard Oil was David vs. Goliath. (Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller is fantastic, if you haven’t read it.) When the magazine publishing her articles was under attack, threatened by litigation on all sides, Tarbell was basically like “I don’t care. Let them come for me. I’m RIGHT and these ghouls have got to GO.” Tarbell’s articles – eventually compiled in a book – led to the Supreme Court’s intervention to crush the monopoly of Standard Oil.

She was one of the most important journalists of the 20th century.

I learned about her in a class I took in college (the best class I ever took, by the way). It was an entire class on the Industrial Revolution, taught by Maury Klein (look him up, he’s a bigwig in the field, especially in regards to the railroads). We had to read Tarbell’s articles, compiled under the title The History of the Standard Oil Company.

It’s an invigorating read. Her prose LEAPS and CRACKLES. She’s got the facts, but she’s also pissed. You can feel it.

Ida Tarbell was a courageous and pioneering women who didn’t let society dictate to her who she should be, did not ask for a seat at the Big Boys Table – because asking means you still think you need permission (i.e. and thinking you need permission is internalized patriarchy). You still hear stuff like: “Why don’t men let us do such and such?” LET us?? Who made them BOSSES of the world. Fuck THAT. Who are THEY to LET us do anything? Ida Tarbell barged into “the room where it happens” – uninvited – unwelcome – plopped herself down at the Big Boys Table, pen in hand, and then proceeded to knock the whole table over!

Ida Tarbell changed the course of the 20th century by going after a monster company, a many-tentacled behemoth which had insinuated itself into every layer of society. One woman went up against free-wheeling brutal capitalism. Her work continues to be relevant today. (Hello, Facebook. Hello, Disney. Hello, companies acting as mini-Nation-States.) Her articles led to the Anti-Trust laws, the cases of which dominated the economics/politics/all-of-America in the early decades of the 20th century. She attacked companies that tried to crush their competition. I still believe in the Ideals of who we should be – and so often aren’t – and I love the people who fight for those Ideals. We need to fight. We can’t just be like, “Oh well, we all suck, everything sucks, let’s do a re-set.” You can’t re-set history. The past is the past. What can be done about the here-and-now?

That was what Ida Tarbell cared about.
“There was born in me a hatred of privilege, privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy, to be sure, but it still was well, at 15, to have one definite plan based on things seen and heard, ready for a future platform of social and economic justice if I should ever awake to my need of one.” – Ida Tarbell

This entry was posted in Books, On This Day, writers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Happy Birthday, Ida Tarbell, Mother of Muckraking

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    Thinking about it, it’s surprising that Tarbell wasn’t killed. Rockefeller certainly had the resources to get away with it. Maybe there was some weird concept of male chivalry working in his mind that held him back. Or maybe he kicked himself later for not thinking of it.

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