- Historic Sites
The Gentlewoman And The Robber Baron
When Ida Tarbell set out to probe the operations of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, it seemed like David against Goliath all over again
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
Once when Ida was searching for material in Indiana and Ohio, an order went out from Standard headquarters: “Simply ignore her entirely.” But in the face of such mounting hostility even Standard Oil could not play the sphinx forever. The company began to give out information on its operations and employed Ivy Ledbetter Lee, an early public relations counsel, to place advertisements and friendly stories in newspapers and magazines. It ordered five thousand copies of Montague’s book and distributed them to employees, ministers, libraries, teachers, and prominent citizens.
Rockefeller’s own image was under such attack that a group of Congregational ministers balked at accepting his gift of $100,000 to their board of missions, calling it “tainted money.” Later, to their embarrassment, they found that some of their colleagues had actually requested the gift. But the term “tainted money” briefly captured many a headline. Undeterred, Rockefeller intensified his long habit of philanthropy. Two months after the final chapter of the Standard Oil history appeared in McClure’s , he announced gifts of one million dollars to Yale University and ten times that amount to the General Education Board, a philanthropy in aid of higher education that he had helped to establish two years before. No one objected. Such sums, the New York Sun commented dryly, “deodorize themselves.” When it was charged that Rockefeller was using philanthropy to silence criticism, Ida came to his defense, reminding critics that Rockefeller had been a steady giver to church and charity since boyhood. If his gifts were larger now, she pointed out, it was because his income was greater and perhaps because he sought to call public attention to the benefits reaped from Standard Oil.
John D. proved his own most effective advocate. In 1909 he published a slim book titled Random Reminiscences of Men and Events . Although he did not mention Ida or other critics by name, it was obvious the outcry was on Rockefeller’s mind. “Just how far one is justified … in defending himself from attacks is a moot point,” he wrote. Random Reminiscences , an informal account of the early career, principles, and recreations of the nation’s richest man, also contained useful hints on how to give money away wisely. This little book, one Rockefeller biographer has said, “did more to make Rockefeller a human figure than tons of Sunday supplement articles.”
Random Reminiscences , however, did not persuade the federal government to call off a suit charging Standard Oil with violation of the Sherman act. The case dragged through three and a half years of litigation. In 1909 a federal circuit court sustained the government’s position, but Standard appealed to the Supreme Court. Many an editor invited Ida to analyze the testimony. “I could have made a good killing out of that long investigation …” she recalled later. “But I had no stomach for it.” Weary of all the controversy, she wished only “to escape into the safe retreat of a library where I could study people long dead.”
Finally, on May 15, 1911, the decision was handed down. The highest court in the land declared Standard Oil of New Jersey to be a monopoly in restraint of trade, based on unfair practices. Charging that Standard’s object was “to drive others from the field and exclude them from their right to trade,” the court ordered the holding company dissolved. The justices, in effect, agreed with Ida.
“The History of the Standard Oil Company” was probably the most sensational serial ever to appear in an American magazine. Allan Nevins, in his biography of Rockefeller, called it “the most spectacular success of the muckraking school of journalism, and its most enduring achievement.” As a historian Ida Tarbell had her flaws. She was untrained in economics. She yearned to turn back the clock to an era of individualism in business. She was obviously partial to independent oilmen, even though she scolded them for lacking the patience and fortitude to organize effectively against Rockefeller. In her indignation she sometimes exaggerated the iniquity of her archvillain.
But at a time when strong men quailed before the Rockefeller reputation, this daughter of the oil regions, fortified by her sense of righteous morality, boldly voiced their feelings. Although small operators lost their struggle for existence, Ida carried the day in the contest for public opinion. A modern-day historian of the muckraking era, David M. Chalmers, believes the image she fashioned of Rockefeller as a “cunning, “ruthless Shylock” has not been successfully erased by a half century of Rockefeller family philanthropy. Forty years after her serial appeared, Time magazine credited the McClure’s articles with bringing in a “gusher of public resentment that flowed all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.”
Was Ida’s study an accurate work of historical research, or was it a subjective attack on practices of which she disapproved? Modern business historians, looking back on the “History” with the hindsight of a later era, generally substantiate her charges that Standard Oil built its monopoly upon special favors from railroads, mastery of the pipeline system, and sharp marketing practices, all of which helped force small independents out of the fields and refineries.