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Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller

Author(s):Weinberg, Steve
Reviewer(s):McCannon, Bryan C.

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

Steve Weinberg, Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. xv + 304 pp. $26 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-393-04935-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bryan C. McCannon, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Steve Weinberg is a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and a current member of the University of Missouri Journalism School. He engages in ?a hybrid of biography and dramatic narrative? (p. xi) of Ida Minerva Tarbell. The author credits Tarbell with establishing the new form of journalism, known as muckraking, with her 1904 investigative book The History of the Standard Oil Company, which came out of a serial published in McClure?s magazine. Weinberg credits Tarbell?s work with playing a significant role in his career since he claims to be a spokesman of muckraking.

The lives of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, were closely linked. Weinberg?s book presents the similarity by constructing a dual biography following the life of each, side-by-side, throughout to capture ?their epic collision course? (p. xi). They share plenty of coincidences such as having a long life, losing a sibling, valuing education, and being strongly influenced by religion. It was Ida Tarbell?s book on Standard Oil that has brought her fame. The investigative piece shaped public opinion of Rockefeller, earning her not only an editorial position and a healthy public speaking career, but also an invitation by President Wilson to work on a commission on U.S. tariff policy. Lesser know are her biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. On a recent trip to Lincoln?s Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I noticed that Tarbell?s biography was, in fact, on the short list of recommended Lincoln biographies.

Ida Tarbell was born in 1857 and grew up in Rouseville, Pennsylvania near Titusville, Pennsylvania.[1] Her father, Franklin, was an entrepreneur in the booming oil business of western Pennsylvania. Franklin Tarbell manufactured wooden oil barrels. Ida was a bright and energetic young woman growing up experiencing, firsthand, the oil industry. In 1876 she attended Allegheny College, which had only recently started admitting women. There she became a member of the Ossali Society, a women?s literary society, providing a start to her writing career. After a short stint as a schoolteacher, Ida moved back home to her family and participated in the Chautauquan Assembly. The Chautauquan Literary and Scientific Circle was an educational gathering started by Lewis Miller in 1874. Ida was recruited for a job at the magazine The Chautauquan writing annotations of the readings of the assembly.

Tarbell moved to Paris to research a biography of Madame Roland. To earn an income she worked as a freelance writer publishing articles in American magazines on French culture. Her writing came to the attention of Samuel McClure, who persuaded her to come to New York City and write for his new magazine. It was at McClure?s that Ida developed her investigative journalistic style and embarked on her exposition on Standard Oil.

The life and impact of John D. Rockefeller has been extensively written about. Biographies such as Ron Chernow?s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Jules Abels? The Rockefeller Billions: The Story of the World?s Most Stupendous Fortune, and Charles R. Morris? The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy are, in fact, frequently cited in the text. The author portrays a clean and concise life of Rockefeller, while not going into depth as other biographies have. It seems that Rockefeller?s life is only presented to the detail needed to better understand Tarbell?s life story. The book briefly mentions the technological advances, entrepreneurial ideas, scandals, and economic achievements of Rockefeller and Standard Oil. The emphasis, regarding Rockefeller, is on his personal characteristics and how they were beneficial for his rise as an entrepreneur and how they were detrimental for his public relations.

An interesting point of departure between Weinberg?s and Chernow?s biography is the presentation of how Ida Tarbell began her investigation into Standard Oil. The difference illustrates the striking contrast in how the two works present her. In Weinberg?s presentation it was Samuel McClure who wanted to capitalize on the progressive movement in the country by investigating a trust. Ida Tarbell recommended the investigation of the sugar industry, while others on the staff advised to re-open the investigation of Philip D. Armour and his beef trust, which had previously been written on by another staff journalist. As the debate unfolded Tarbell sought opinions from a variety of sources as to which trust the magazine should investigate and in staff meetings ?it became clear to her colleagues that Rockefeller and his Standard Oil trust ?had been a strong thread weaving itself into the patter? of her life [and that she] uniquely could bring the requisite passion and skills to the project? (p. 206). The stated goal of Samuel McClure and Ida Tarbell was to give a ?clear and succinct notion of the processes by which a particular industry passes from the control of the many to that of the few? (p. 207). Ron Chernow?s presentation is quite different in tone. He states that her father, as an independent in the oil industry battling against Standard Oil, bred ?in his sensitive daughter a lifelong hatred of Standard Oil? (p. 436). He goes on to claim that the idea of writing about Standard Oil had been on her mind for many years, that although she ?pretended to apply her scalpel to Standard Oil with surgical objectivity, she was never neutral? (p. 439), and that her father dying of stomach cancer at the time of her writing may have embittered her toward Rockefeller. Thus, while Chernow paints a negative picture of Tarbell and her intentions, Steve Weinberg?s presentation emphasizes ?her passion to discover and disseminate the truth about political, economic, and social issues? (p. xiv).

The contrasts between the two authors are great. Chernow spends much of his chapter on Tarbell discussing her inappropriate use of information provided by Rockefeller?s angry brother Frank and the claimed, incorrect presentation of Rockefeller?s purchase of a small lubricating company owned by the widow of Fred Backus. In the index to Weinberg?s book there is not even a listing for Backus. Instead, this text presents in-depth information on the extent of her careful research and skill at presenting the workings of a trust to the general public.

I am immediately struck by the question of whether it matters to our understanding of market power and antitrust policy whether Ida Tarbell was a student of objective investigation who wrote on the strengths and flaws of John D. Rockefeller or whether she was the embittered daughter of a failed entrepreneur motivated to bring down the man that influenced her life. It is hard to say. She definitely influenced public opinion in her time and biographies of Rockefeller since then have been praised for resurrecting his image. Did her writing influence the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act or the 1911 Supreme Court ruling that broke up Standard Oil? Is competition policy better (or worse) because of our understanding of Rockefeller? While I do not have the answers to these questions, Weinberg?s book, by presenting a different perspective, raises such questions for economic historians to consider.

Taking on the Trust is best thought of as a complement to the literature on John D. Rockefeller. The value to economists of studying Standard Oil and Rockefeller, along with studying trusts in general, has been well-articulated (see, for example, Christopher Baylor?s (2001) review of Chernow?s biography). What Weinberg?s book does is provide us with an investigation of Ida Tarbell?s life and how her values and background lead to her muckraking. It is an especially valuable complement since it provides a rather complimentary depiction of Tarbell?s work and influence; balancing the more negative portrayals.

Finally, the book briefly delves into a number of issues and events of the times that should prove interesting to economic historians. Along with a presentation of the life of Samuel McClure, the author discusses political and social thought at the turn of the century (and Ida Tarbell?s thoughts on them), the progressive writers and thinkers of the time, and the early feminist movement. Additionally, Tarbell?s praise of the writings of Henry George is interesting. Finally, the effect of western land speculation and the financial crisis of 1857 on Ida?s parents is a noteworthy anecdote of an asset bubble (and bust).

Steve Weinberg?s Taking on the Trust is a nice addition to the literature on John D. Rockefeller as it delves into the life of Ida Tarbell. While lacking in details regarding Standard Oil and its practices, it provides an interesting story of one of the early female investigative journalists.

Note: 1. Ida Tarbell was actually born in Hallow Hatch, PA while her father was away trying to start a new family farm in Iowa (until the financial crisis of 1857 froze his bank accounts and depreciated the value of the land). At the age of four he moved his family to Rouseville to be closer to Titusville and the oil boom. In 1870 the family moved to Titusville.

References: Baylor, Christopher A., ?Review of Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.? EH.Net Economic History Services, Jul 11 2001. URL: http://eh.net/bookreviews/library/0373.

Chernow, Ron. 1998. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Random House.

Bryan C. McCannon is an Assistant Professor of Economics and the Hough Family Fellow at Wake Forest University. His recent work includes an analysis on the use of sanctions that depend on the history of past violations of the law, ?Differentiating between First and Repeat Offenses,? Contemporary Economic Policy, forthcoming. Additionally, he is currently working on an economic analysis of the Classical Athenian legal system.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII