Ida Tarbell: Standard Oil Company book origin


Ida Tarbell wrote “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” to show the corruption and other nefarious activities of the Standard Oil Company. This work, which was first published as a serial in McClure’s Magazine and later as a book, helped lead the breakup of the company into smaller organizations.

The following quote is a reflection from Ida on the book’s origin. 


“As Steffens’ case shows there was always much fingering of a subject at McClure’s before one of the staff was told to go ahead. The original hint might come from Mr. McClure’s overflowing head and pocket, Mr. Phillips’ notebooks, as much a part of him as his glasses, the daily mail, the chance word of a caller. We all turned in our pickings. They must concern the life of the day, that which was interesting people. An idea, once launched, grew until fixed on somebody; and, once started, it continued to grow according to the response of readers. No response—no more chapters. A healthy response—as many chapters as the material justified.

It was by this process that my next long piece of work came into being: ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company.’

The deluge of monopolistic trusts which had followed the close of the Spanish-American War and the ‘return of prosperity’ was disturbing and confusing people. It was contrary to their philosophy, their belief that, given free opportunity, free competition, there would always be brains and energy enough to prevent even the ablest leader monopolizing an industry. What was interfering with the free play of the forces in which they trusted? They had been depending on the Federal Antitrust Law passed ten years before. Was it quite useless? It looked that way.

There was much talk in the office about it, and there came to the top finally the idea of using the story of a typical trust to illustrate how and why the clan grew. How about the greatest of them all—the Standard Oil Company?

I suppose I must have talked rather freely about my own recollections and impressions of its development. It had been a strong thread weaving itself into the pattern of my life from childhood on.

I had come into the world just before the discovery of oil, the land on which I was born not being over thirty miles away from that first well. The discovery had shaped my father’s life, rescuing him as it did thousands of others from the long depression which had devastated the eighteen-fifties. I had grown up with oil derricks, oil tanks, pipe lines, refineries, oil exchanges. I remembered what had happened in the Oil Region in 1872 when the railroads and an outside group of refiners attempted to seize what many men had created. It was my first experience in revolution. On the instant the word became holy to me. It was your privilege and duty to fight injustice. I was much elated when, not so long afterwards, I fell on Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ and read his defense of the right to revolt.

I had been only dimly conscious of what had happened in the decade following—the decade in which the Standard Oil Company had completed its monopoly. It was the effect on the people about me that stirred me, the hate and suspicion and fear that engulfed the community. I had been so deeply stirred by this human tragedy, as I have told, that I had made a feeble and ineffectual attempt to catch it, fix it in a novel.”

Black and white 1904 portrait of Ida Tarbell, an American writer and investigative journalist of the early 20th century. She is depicted with a stern expression, hair styled in an updo typical of the era, wearing a high-necked blouse with lace and ruffled detailing.
Ida Tarbell, 1904

“Ida Tarbell: Standard Oil Company book origin” sources

Quote – – Tarbell, Ida M. (Ida Minerva), 1857-1944. All in the day’s work; an autobiography New York, The Macmillan company, 1939. p. cm. PS3539.A58 Z5 1939 / Project Gutenberg 

Photograph – Portrait of Ida Tarbell taken circa 1905 / Ida M. Tarbell. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>


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