Ida Tarbell: The Best of the 1880’s

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell

Layni Newville, Writer

Ida Tarbell was born in 1857 in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania with the desire to become a scientist, although not just a science but the best female scientist in the world. She would write letters to her future self, asking questions. She did this mostly to document important events from her childhood, made the memories permanent by writing them down. She often drew pictures of the events, creating a vision of the memory. Occasionally, she would rent a calotype from a friend or neighbor to take printed photographs or her and her friends and family. She kept all the writings, drawings, and pictures in a large leather suitcase under her bed. As she got older, she pursued her dream to be a scientist. That dream never turned into a reality as she quickly realized the headache it would be to become the first female scientist.

Peaks Into the World of Journalism

Looking for a new occupation, Tarbell was offered an internship by the editor of Chautauquan,  Dr. Thomas Flood. The Chautauquan was a magazine published by in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She then took on the career of a investigative journal and operated the Chautauquan for six years after the prior editor has retired. Writing soon became a passion of hers, she loved the work and grew the magazine company into a quite large team of magnificent writers who also shared the same passion. One of her biographers, Kathleen Brady, wrote a piece about Tarbell, in it she says “the sight of her work in type was like magic which dispelled forever dreams of  botany.” Tarbell didn’t realize the affect she had on small growing journalists around her. When she became the editor she made it a focus of hers to stay away from common stories written by other magazines, instead she constantly wrote updates on the growing scientific field. She investigated scientific studies and experiments of medicine and devices. Tarbell and her team interviewed thousands of scientists and interns to find out their progress and inside looks of their work.

French Revolution

In 1890 Tarbell moved to France, she had been writing about the French revolution. She attended protests, walks, conferences, etc. This was to get more of an inside look at the French revolution. She had met with many of the movement leaders to interview then, ask them questions about their reasoning and hopes of the movement. She separately documented her thoughts about her time there, yet that was never releases to the public. She was one of the few American journalists who wrote about the French revolution in American papers, bringing awareness and updates to the movement. This gained a ton of American’s attention and support for those in France, making Americans root for those fighting in France. Some Americans even traveled to France to help in the revolution, not necessarily to fight, but to help the women and children be safe in their homes. Providing food and clothes to those in need and other charity services.

Tarbell Went National

Tarbell’s big career began when she started writing biographies on Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. This was when the Standard Oil Company ran by John D. Rockefeller came into the economical game in America. Ida Tarbell saw from the very beginning that Rockefeller and the entire Standard Oil company had never played fair. She knew she had to write about it for all of America to see, to expose Rockefeller’s crimes, stop him from scamming innocent people and small companies. She did lots of research reading public records, documents, court testimonies and statements, and state and national records and newspaper coverage that revealed all the dust under the carpet. While Tarbell looked into these, writing her piece, her father advised her to step back and take a softer approach fearing Rockefeller would shoot back at her with worst, that could potentially end her career…even her life. However, she ignored his advice knowing the story had to be told no matter the consequences. After she wrote her first biography, the story kept thickening. She led on to make a 19-part-series she name “The History of the Standard Oil Company”. In her pieces she exposes specific acts of Rockefeller’s unethical doings. Americans read her work and waited for the next paper. Once the truth had come out, the Standard Oil Company began to fall as people now knew Rockefeller’s intentions. She became on of the most influential women of her time, proving women can use their voice to advocate against wrong doings.


After all of this, woman looked at Tarbell as a hero of the times. Her pen wrote like magic, leading a women’s rights act that nobody was aware of. Despite Tarbell’s influence on society, she refuses to take the title of a role model. She opposed to her accomplishments as a women and claims that traditional female roles have and will always be denigrated by women’s rights advocates. That women’s contributions will never made a difference, and they belonged in the private sphere. Her unpopular opinion drove many women away from her acts and accomplishments. Women saw her as “brainwashed” “selfish” or “careless” of the success of womenkind. Many female members of her team quit because of her negative reputation due to her comments to the public, without help and income to help her magazine company she was forced to close up shop and retired. Many years following this, she died of pneumonia at the age of 86. Her work is still shown in museums around America, but her reputation is looked down on by those passionate about the women’s rights movement.