Remarks on the Induction of Ida Tarbell into the National Women’s Hall of Fame

The portrait of Ida Tarbell which hangs in the National Women's Hall of Fame
The portrait of Ida Tarbell which hangs in the National Women’s Hall of Fame

By Allegheny College Professor Emeritus of History, Paula Treckel
October 7, 2000—Seneca Falls, New York

On behalf of the students, faculty, administration and alumni of Allegheny College, I would like to thank the Board for their selection of Ida Minerva Tarbell as an inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Born and raised in the oil-rich hills of western Pennsylvania, Ida Tarbell was an eyewitness to history. Her first memory was of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during her childhood she had a front row seat to the birth of America’s oil industry. She watched as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust gobbled up his competitors in the oil business.

As a young adult, Ida was fascinated by the sciences and driven to understand the world she saw through her microscope. Intelligent and curious, she sought a higher education at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college in Meadville, PA. where, as the sole female member of the class of 1880, she studied the sciences and history, preparing herself for life as an independent, single woman.

As a writer for The Chautauqua Magazine, Ida Tarbell quickly found her calling–that of a journalist. Freelancing articles for American magazines while living in Paris, she came to the attention of editor Samuel S. McClure, whose magazine, McClure’s, practiced a new kind of journalism–journalism with a “conscience.” She couldn’t resist his offer to join his staff in 1894.

Ida Tarbell’s first major story for McClure’s was a biographical series on Napoleon, followed by another on her childhood hero, Abraham Lincoln. But then it was suggested that Tarbell write about the industrial monopolies strangling the life out of America’s businesses. Recalling her childhood on the Pennsylvania oil frontier, she rolled up her sleeves and took dead aim at exposing John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

Ida Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil, published as a book in 1904, was a tour de force. Her tenacious research, her meticulous attention to detail, and her scrupulous devotion to the truth exposed the illegal activities of Rockefeller’s trust for all the world to see. It quickly became a hallmark of a new breed of investigative journalism. An angry, irritated President Theodore Roosevelt labeled this new generation of journalists, epitomized by Ida Tarbell and her History of Standard Oil, “muckrakers.” And Ida Tarbell was known as the foremost “Lady Muckraker” of her time. As a consequence of her work, the U.S. Government brought suit against Standard Oil for violation of the nation’s anti-trust laws and in 1911 the nation’s most powerful monopoly was broken.

Although paradoxically, perhaps, she never supported women’s right to vote, Ida Tarbell was a role model for generations of young women eager to follow in her footsteps. Her long career as a journalist brought her much acclaim. In 1922, The New York Times named her one of America’s Most Admired Women. But even though she dined with Presidents and potentates, interviewed business leaders and dictators, and traveled around the world, at heart she remained a modest, humble woman, true to the values instilled in her during her youth in western Pennsylvania.

Of all the books and articles she wrote during her lifetime, Ida Tarbell was most proud of The History of Standard Oil. Shortly before her death on January 6,1944 she was asked by a young history professor, “If you could rewrite your book today, what would you change?” “Not one word, young man,” she stoutly replied, “Not one word.”

I thank the National Women’s Hall of Fame for recognizing Ida Minerva Tarbell’s outstanding contribution to the field of American journalism. And I am proud to accept this honor in her behalf.