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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
But Ida raised a larger question: Was it better for the American oil industry to have free, albeit cutthroat, competition, or to fall under the dominance of a monopoly with the power to maintain orderly production and a profitable, if higher, price structure? It is this aspect of her account that still arouses controversy. Social historians tend to be on Ida’s side, business historians to defend Rockefeller; both schools agree, however, that Ida was a pioneer business historian and that, although she worked with the crude research tools of the early 1900’s and became a special pleader for her own moralistic ideas of business ethics, she presented a remarkably clear and truthful picture of the rise of Standard Oil.
Though John D. Rockefeller never met the stern spinster who judged his business morality so harshly, she and Rockefeller’s son, John D., Jr., did meet at a conference called by President Wilson after World War I. The younger Rockefeller, who had once compared Standard Oil to an American Beauty rose, had become disenchanted and had made “one of the most important decisions of my life.” Resigning his directorships in Standard Oil and U. S. Steel, he announced in 1910 that he would devote his life to giving away the immense sums of money that flowed from his father’s business creation.
When John D., Jr., realized he was to meet Ida, he sought the advice of William Allen White. The famous Kansas editor knew the younger Rockefeller as a gentle and kindhearted person for whom Ida’s book had been “an unpleasant fact which gave him something more than pause.” He advised Rockefeller to meet Miss Tarbell casually and naturally; as two sensitive people they would bridge the awkward situation. After the meeting White saw John D., Jr., hurrying into the street to hail a cab for Miss Tarbell. Later he was amused to see them, placed together by some inspired host at a formal dinner, “chatting amiably … each trying to outdo the other in politeness.”
Although Ida wrote many other books and articles, none of her later works had the impact of the Standard Oil history. In 1922 she tried to revive her interest and write a third volume on Standard. But the fire and the burning indignation that had caught a nation’s attention were gone. “Repeating yourself,” she decided, “is a doubtful practice.”
In 1937, as Ida at eighty was writing her autobiography, John D. Rockefeller died at the age of ninety-seven. The lady who had been his nemesis lived seven more years, enjoying the tranquillity of her Connecticut farm, where she made jelly and raised peonies, lettuce, and potatoes. An interviewer who sought her out in this retreat found her characteristically self-effacing: “The proof that I am able to do anything so worthwhile as raise a potato never fails to thrill me,” said the Terror of the Trusts.