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Ida Tarbell (1857–1944)

Portrait of Ida M. Tarbell seated at her desk in the McClure's magazine office, by Jessie Tarbox Beals. New York, NY. Gelatin silver print, 1894. From the Jessie Tarbox Beals Photographs, 1896-1941 collection. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Ida Tarbell, a journalist, "muckraker," and lecturer, was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857. Tarbell's family moved many times during her childhood to accommodate her father's involvement in the oil industry manufacturing wooden storage tanks and later as an oil refiner and producer. Ida graduated from Allegheny College in 1880, the only woman in her class, and became a teacher in Ohio.

After a few years she returned to Pennsylvania and edited for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a literary organization offering educational and reading programs. In 1891, Tarbell left for Paris, where, at the Sorbonne, she studied women's involvement in the French Revolution. She also wrote biographical articles for McClure's Magazine, some of which she published later as books, including biographies of Madame Roland, Napoleon (1895), and Abraham Lincoln (1900), which won wide acclaim for both Tarbell and McClure's.

Tarbell returned to the United States and researched the business practices of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. Her 1901 book The Tariff in Our Time later drew the attention of President Woodrow Wilson, who asked her to serve on the Federal Tariff Commission in 1916. Perhaps her most famous work, "The History of the Standard Oil Company," a 19-part series published in McClure's (1902–1904), drew public attention to the oil trust's monopolizing power.

Tarbell helped to found the American Magazine in 1906 and remained involved in its operation until 1915 when the magazine was sold. She also lectured and wrote books on women's societal roles, including The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Woman (1915). Despite her achievements in public life, Tarbell supported traditional conceptions of women's domestic roles and opposed the women's suffrage movement. Her final book was an autobiography written near the end of her life, All in the Day's Work (1939). Ida Tarbell died in 1944 in Connecticut at age 86.

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