Childhood & Early Life
Born on the 5th of November 1857, in Pennsylvania’s Erie County, Ida Minerva Tarbell was the first child of teachers Esther Ann and Franklin S. Tarbell. Her father, Franklin, later became an oilman.
Ida Tarbell was observant and intelligent and graduated from high school as head of her class. She started studying biology in Allegheny College, in the year 1876, where she was the only woman amongst 41 pupils. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1880 and her master’s degree in 1883.
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In 1880, Ida Tarbell got a headmistress’ job, at Poland Union Seminary, Ohio and started teaching. But she came back to Pennsylvania in 1882 and took up writing for ‘The Chautauquan’, which was a teaching aid for correspondence courses. By 1886, Tarbell was the managing editor there.
Later in 1886, she published her first article ‘the Arts and Industries of Cincinnati’, wherein it was noticed that she had already developed a unique writing flow.
She showed her research prowess when she penned her ‘Women as Inventors’ article and followed it up with a piece on women in journalism in early 1887.
By 1891, Tarbell had a falling out with the editor of ‘The Chautauquan’ Theodore Flood, and having decided to work for herself, she moved to Paris to start a new phase in her career.
She continued to study and write for many American news publications like the Cincinnati Times-Star, the Chicago Tribune, and the Pittsburgh Dispatch. In 1891, Tarbell published ‘France Adorée’, a short story in Scribner’s Magazine’s December issue.
She started working on the biography of French revolution’s inspiring leader Madame Roland, which ended up in revelations that upset Tarbell and opened her eyes to a new worldview.
Meanwhile, Samuel McClure, the owner of McClure’s Magazine, had his mind set on employing Tarbell for his magazine. He offered her the editor’s position; however, she chose to work as a freelancer, and contributed articles on Parisian women scientists, intellectuals and writers.
In 1893, she wrote an article published in the Boston Transcript, called ‘A Paris Press Woman’ and started a report called ‘The Edge of the Future’ for which she interviewed the likes of ‘Louis Pasteur’, French Biologist and French writers ‘Alexandre Dumas’, ‘Emile Zola’, and ‘Alphonse Daudet’.
After completing her Roland biography, she left Paris, returned home briefly working at McClure, and then moved to New York in 1894. Post this shift, she was offered the job of writing a series on Napoleon Bonaparte, which she started submitting within six weeks of taking up the project.
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This biographical series quadrupled the readers and doubled the circulation of McClure magazine and was later made into a best seller book earning Tarbell a life-long royalty.
Following this, she worked on a 20-part biographical series on Abraham Lincoln, which led to the popularity of McClure surpassing the readership of rivals Century magazine.
She became editor of McClure in 1899 and left by 1901 to research and write about the shady business of the Rockefeller led Standard Oil Company, which brought about her major work in the form of ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company’.
In 1906, she along with John Phillips, bought over The American Magazine and left McClure. They ran it till 1915, when it was completely taken over by Crowell Publishing company.
In 1917, Tarbell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and it deteriorated her ability to write. However, she continued to write, teach, travel, and even published a novel in 1919, ‘The Rising of the Tide’.
In 1939, she published her autobiography titled ‘All in a Day’s Work’ and was working on her next book ‘Life After Eighty’ when she passed away.
Ida Tarbell’s Abraham Lincoln biography series ‘The Life of Abraham Lincoln’, is considered to be one of the most informative pieces written about the slain president. It advanced her employer, McClure magazine, to the next level and earned her the reputation of being a leading authority on Lincoln.
She gained immense popularity for her book, ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company’, an exposé, that was published in the year 1904. It comprised of a set of articles about the illegal and back-handed techniques used by John Rockefeller to advance his company Standard Oil, that were printed in the McClure Magazine in between the years 1902 and 1904.
According to historians J. N. Conway and Daniel Yergin, Tarbell’s book ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company’ was an investigative journalism ‘masterpiece’ which was also United States’ ‘single most influential’ business story ever published. The book not only led to the breaking of the Standard Oil Company’s monopoly, it also acted as the catalyst for the Mann-Elkins Act, the Hepburn Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act and the formation of the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).