Classic Author Focus: Ida Tarbell

Ida M. Tarbell

I haven’t written many Classic Author Focus posts about nonfiction writers yet, but I thought it would be interesting to write about Ida Tarbell, who was a ground-breaking investigative journalist. She was the author of many muck-raking articles and books and is particularly famous for an exposé about the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller. She was known for the thoroughness of her research.

She was probably inspired to write the series of articles about Standard Oil because when she was 14 years old, Standard Oil and three major railways conspired to crush her father’s oil business along with that of countless other independent businesses. When her father refused to take a deal swapping Standard Oil stock for his business, he eventually was ruined and committed suicide. The book she wrote 30 years later was called “the single most influential book on business ever published in the United States” by historian Daniel Yergin.

Tarbell was born in a log cabin in the oil regions of Pennsylvania. As a child, she witnessed many of the ups and downs of the oil business as her family’s fortunes rose and fell, including a natural gas explosion in Rouseville that killed 19 men. Although she was an intelligent but undisciplined and unruly student, she attended Allegheny College, where she was the only woman in her class. After a short stint as a headmistress and schoolteacher, she began working as writer for The Chatauquan, a home-teaching supplement. More famously, after living briefly in Paris, where she was researching a biography, she went to work for McClure’s Magazine. Samuel McClure actually showed up on her doorstep in Paris to offer her a job. It was from McClures and later The American Magazine that she published most of the articles and books that she became famous for.

She also became interested in the suffragist movement and wrote articles about such topics as women’s safety and health in the workplace and whether women make good inventors. She was a member of two presidential conferences and has continued to receive praise for her work long past her death. Her last work was finished four years before her death of pneumonia at the age of 86.

Dates: 1857-1944

Most popular works: The History of the Standard Oil Company, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, The Ways of Women, New Ideals in Business

Other works: numerous other books and articles, including “Tariff in Our Times,” “John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study,” “The Business of Being a Woman,” “In the Streets of Paris,” and “The Identification of Criminals”


2 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Ida Tarbell

  1. Fascinating! I’ve just finished reading The Course of History, Ten Meals that Changed the World which includes a chapter on the initial gathering of Four Horsemen of Oil as they worked out the details of their deal to control oil prices. I was left wanting to know more and The History of the Standard Oil company sounds like a good place to start. What a sad personal story she had, but good on her for being brave enough to write what she did.

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