Tarbell & Standard Oil

November 5: Theinvestigative journalist Ida Tarbell was born on this day in 1857. Tarbelldisliked her reputation as a muckraker, regarding that term as a disservice toher painstaking research. Her History ofthe Standard Oil Company (1904), the book which established her fame,builds a dispassionate, documentary case against Standard Oil’s monopolisticpractices, though it clearly sympathizes with the unions, the sincerepoliticians, and the small oil producers—Tarbell’s father had worked for one—whoexperienced “the hush of defeat, of cowardice, of hopelessness.” Inher Appendix, Tarbell provides a more personal profile of Standard Oil’s CEO,John D. Rockefeller, portraying him as bloodless, systematic, andinescapable:

Now, it takes time to secure and to keep that which thepublic has decided it is not for the general good that you have. It takes timeand caution to perfect anything which must be concealed. It takes time to crushmen who are pursuing legitimate trade. But one of Mr. Rockefeller’s mostimpressive characteristics is patience. There never was a more patient man, orone who could dare more while he waited. The folly of hurrying, the folly ofdiscouragement, for one who would succeed, went hand in hand. Everything mustbe ready before he acted, but while you wait you must prepare, must think,work. “You must put in, if you would take out.” His instinct for themoney opportunity in things was amazing, his perception of the value of seizingthis or that particular invention, plant, market, was unerring. He was like ageneral who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from aballoon the whole great field, and sees how, this point taken, that must fall;this hill reached, that fort is commanded. And nothing was too small: thecorner grocery in Browntown, the humble refining still on Oil Creek, theshortest private pipe line. Nothing, for little things grow.

Following the success of her attack upon male, corporateAmerica, Tarbell was approached by the leading feminists of the day, who hopedto capitalize on her fame as a voice for change. Far from supporting thefeminist cause, Tarbell wrote two books in defense of the traditional genderroles. Perhaps expressing her own regrets at being unmarried and childless, sheglorified motherhood as a woman’s best and only true job: “Learning,business careers, political and industrial activities—none of these things ismore than incidental in the national task of woman.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.