Ida Tarbell performed a tremendous service by writing The History of Standard Oil. Her detailed effort over many years was the catalyst for bringing down John D. Rockefeller and disbanding the Standard Oil Trust.
Tarbell’s muckraking work exposing the Standard Oil trust stemmed from her personal experience: Her father was basically driven out of the oil business by Rockefeller. She channeled her personal feelings of rectitude, together with her perseverance and research and journalism skills, to change the United States and the world.
One of the best ways to grasp the far-too-extensive reach of Standard Oil is to view it in terms of the huge, multinational companies of today that are a result of its forced breakup in 1911. These include ExxonMobil, Chevron, Amoco, Sohio, Penzoil, and numerous pipe, transportation, and mining companies. Rockefeller–the major shareholder of “the Standard”–also had vast personal holdings that added to the horizontal and vertical integration.
This reach and control is even more pronounced and harmful when combined with the extraordinary importance of oil. Usage of oil began primarily as a lubricant, then as kerosene for lighting, and finally as gasoline (and other products). Its worldwide dependence and geopolitical influence is obvious.
Tarbell’s individual efforts influenced current antitrust law. But in 1870, at the time of the beginnings of Standard Oil of Ohio, such laws did not exist and these business practices were not specifically viewed as crimes. Hers was a massive consciousness-raising effort of an incredibly complex subject; to this day there is controversy over Rockefeller’s methods–he did stabilize an industry and create economies, but at the same time individuals and other companies were clearly harmed. Through talent and perseverance she was able to convince millions of people that monopolies are bad and competition is good; she had to show that all in business and capitalism is not good or fair nor is it ultimately best for society as a whole. She was not a lawyer, historian, elected official, or high-ranking business executive. Writing and research can be solitary and daunting. Hers was a remarkable achievement.
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Ida Tarbell was managing editor of McClure’s Magazine and her expose of Standard Oil first appeared in nineteen installments in the magazine