Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) was born in the oil region of northwestern Pennsylvania during the world’s first oil boom. She watched as her father’s oil tank business failed due to the unfair practices of one company in particular, the Standard Oil Trust, owned by John D. Rockefeller.
To Tarbell, the efforts of Rockefeller to place his company in control of the nation’s energy in the early 1870s was a turning point for the nation. Initially, small producers banded together and defeated his efforts, but Rockefeller built his Standard Oil Trust from the ashes of this initial setback. By the end of the 1870s, Standard controlled roughly 80 percent of the world’s oil supply; by dominating transportation and refining of oil, Rockefeller controlled the market.
Competitors could only watch as Standard used ruthless business practices, including rollbacks and insider pricing, to squeeze out its competitors. Tarbell, who had become a successful journalist and editor, was determined to show Americans what Rockefeller was really doing. Across the nation, readers awaited each installment of the story serialized in 19 installments published in McClure’s Magazine between 1902 and 1904.
Though Tarbell teemed with bitterness for what Rockefeller had done to the private businessmen of Pennsylvania’s oil industry, she appreciated the value of allowing the details of the story to express her point of view. The articles were compiled into The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. President Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley in 1901, used the public furor created as a result to pursue a federal investigation. Tarbell’s investigation inspired new efforts to enforce anti-trust laws. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil.
Ida Tarbell: Life and Works (Ida Tarbell Homepage)