Ida Tarbell: Muckraker, Reformer, Role Model | Teen Ink

Ida Tarbell: Muckraker, Reformer, Role Model

February 7, 2010
By Allison Roth GOLD, Pound Ridge, New York
Allison Roth GOLD, Pound Ridge, New York
13 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Ida Tarbell was an accomplished and prominent woman in America between 1870 and 1912. She played a pivotal role in the early roots of investigative journalism, breaking up monopolistic trusts, and exposing political corruption. Throughout the many stages of her life, Ida Tarbell was a journalist, muckraker, reformer, and role model. In addition to having an impact on the lives of many people through her writing, she significantly influenced the development of America as a nation during the Gilded Age. 
Tarbell is most renowned for her work in investigative journalism, which was later given the term “muckraking.” She had a notable effect on this type of journalism. Her numerous installments in McClure’s Magazine lead to her own book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, and a new magazine. When McClure’s ended publication, Ida Tarbell took theinitiative to start American Magazine along with her partners, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. The more she researched industrial and corporate corruption; she grew more motivated to make a difference. Tarbell participated in strikes against corruption with other “muckrakers” from McClure’s Magazine. She became involved with exposing fraud in big business and political lawlessness. Ida Tarbell was determined to reveal the unethical methods of the Standard Oil Company and the illegal tactics of John D. Rockefeller to illustrate these problems. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt defined “muckraking” as a negative term in one of his speeches. On April 15, 1906, in his speech “The Man with the Muck Rake,” Roosevelt stated, “To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial life with such crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent men in the general condemnation means the searing of the public conscience” (Theodore Roosevelt). Roosevelt implied that “muckrakers” were destroying the people’s morals. Despite the President’s degrading words, she continued to write arousing articles on the monopolistic industries. These articles lead to the publication of her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which ranked number five on the New York Times Top 100 list of 20th century American journalism in 1999. Ida Tarbell’s efforts in finding the truth show how investigative journalism and freedom of the Press can have major effects on government, business, and average citizens. Her work in bringing down corrupt capitalists, adding fairness to the society, and adding another purpose to journalism helped to develop a better nation during the Gilded Age.
Perhaps Ida Tarbell’s most famous work, the enlightening book titled The History of the Standard Oil Company, was instrumental in the fall of the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller. The book was compiled from a series of articles written by Tarbell in McClure’s, which resulted in the mobilization of society to help bring down the oil trust. Tarbell thoroughly researched the Standard Oil Company to find hidden information. In her writing, she revealed the true problems underneath the “gilded” surface of the industrial era such as unfair, illegal, unethical, and corrupt business practices. Along with showing the public the disgrace of the company and the man who lead it, Ida Tarbell portrayed the plight of the Pennsylvania independent oil workers. Oil workers were regular people, like Tarbell’s father, who made profits from producing oil, owning refineries, and building storage tanks. They were all put out of business by Rockefeller, who used a business tactic called vertical integration. He owned and managed every part in the process of supplying oil. Rockefeller used fraudulent methods to obtain a monopoly in the oil business. Ida Tarbell wrote about Standard Oil, “They had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me” (PBS Online). Through her motivational writing, Tarbell informed the public and incited an anger in people to help take action. Ida Tarbell’s efforts largely contributed to the disbandment of the Standard Oil Company.
Throughout her entire career as a teacher, “muckraker”, and reformer, Ida Tarbell directly and indirectly influenced the people of America. Although she strongly disagreed with the beliefs of suffragettes and women’s rights advocates, Tarbell was a perfect example that women can be as intelligent, strong, and influential as men. At a time when women were considered the second class, Tarbell was labeled, “Rockefeller’s most formidable rival” (PBS Online). She became an outstanding role model for women and men alike during the Gilded Age. She was well-educated after graduating from Allegheny College as the sole woman out of forty men. In addition to her career in investigative journalism, Tarbell went on to teach science, which was unusual for a woman at that time. With her writings, Tarbell showed that her “voice” was equally as strong as one of a man. Tarbell also demonstrated that perseverance could lead to opportunities for success in education, business, and chosen career. For example, her father advised her not to investigate Rockefeller’s trust because of his prior relationship with him. However, Tarbell proceeded to research the Standard Oil Company unafraid of Rockefeller’s retaliation. She did this because she knew that what he was doing was morally and criminally wrong, and that it needed to be stopped. Ida Tarbell knew the only way America could improve as a Nation would be if all the corruption in industry and government was eliminated. Her strong beliefs and career accomplishments allowed her to change the future of America during the Gilded Age.
In conclusion, Ida Tarbell has profoundly influenced development of America during the Gilded Age. As a “muckraker,” reformer, and role model, Tarbell was crucial in breaking up the major monopolistic trust, the Standard Oil Company. She reformed the history of journalism and brought down corruption in industries. Although she never accepted titles and positions with high regards, Tarbell became a prominent role model for women during this time period.

The author's comments:

Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell Portrait of a Muckraker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh

Conn, Frances G. Ida Tarbell, Muckraker. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1972.

Bausum, Ann. Muckrakers. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Spciety, 2007.

Ida Tarbell Life and Works. 1997-2001. Ida M. Tarbell. 19 Jan. 2010.


People & Events: Ida Tarbell, 1857-1944. 1999-2000. PBS Online. 25 Jan. 2010.


“The Man with the Muck Rake” April 15, 1906. 1999-2006. Theodore Roosevelt. 26 Jan. 2010.

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This article has 2 comments.

andra said...
on Feb. 19 2016 at 12:58 pm
This is beautiful Claire!! Very well written with so much feeling. ♡♡

guest said...
on Jan. 31 2016 at 12:38 pm
She is a hypocrite because she believes that who should be homemakers rather than be in the workforce.