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Ida Tarbell

1857 – 1944

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Setting the Standard

Published nearly 100 years ago, Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company remains a model of investigative reporting and a triumph of journalism’s mission to “speak truth to power.” 

Tarbell was born in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania. Her father had been in the oil business and blamed the withering of his fortunes on the actions of John D. Rockefeller, who — as president of Standard Oil — sought to control the industry through consolidation of ownership. After graduating from Allegheny College (as the only woman in her class), Tarbell moved to Paris and made a living as a freelance writer.

When Tarbell returned to America, it was to join the staff of a new publication, McClure’s Magazine. She became one of McClure’s most prolific and successful writers. Because of her father’s misfortunes, she soon turned her attention to Standard Oil, and McClure’s agreed to a three-part series. For almost two years, Tarbell pored over public documents, court testimony and newspaper coverage relating to Standard Oil. Her reporting transformed a huge, intricate mass of tangled information into a balanced, coherent narrative that raised issues of monopolistic practices and the public trust. The series grew to 19 installments published over a two-year period, and then became a book the following year (1904). The History, which virtually redefined the realm of investigative journalism, can be found on numerous lists of the most important books of the 20th century, including one compiled by the editors of The New York Times in 1999.

Annette Adams: Ann Baumgartner: Cathleen Black: Dr. Nina Starr Braunwald: Jacqueline Cochran: France A. Córdova: Bessie Coleman: Charlotte Curtis: Grace Hoadley Dodge: Alene Duerk: Elsie Eaves: Amy Eilberg: Claire Giannini Hoffman: Sarah Tilghman Hughes: Kara S. Hultgreen: Mae Jemison: Beverly Johnson: Claudia Kennedy: Mary Florence Lathrop: Ruth Law: Faith Sai So Leong: Kathleen McGrath: Constance Baker Motley: Pauli Murray: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Judith Rodin: Florence Rood: Dr. Florence Sabin: Jill Abramson: Ruth J. Simmons: Norma Merrick Sklarek: Dr. Janet Graeme Travell: Maggie Mitchell Walker: Alice Stebbins Wells: Ella Flagg Young: