Who did Ida Tarbell Write About?

Ida Tarbell was a pioneering journalist, biographer, and muckraker who exposed the abuses of corporate power and championed social reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She wrote about many influential figures and topics in American history, but she is best known for her groundbreaking investigations of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and her insightful biographies of Abraham Lincoln.

The History of the Standard Oil Company

Tarbell’s most famous work was The History of the Standard Oil Company, a two-volume book published in 1904 that revealed the unethical business practices and ruthless tactics of Rockefeller’s oil monopoly. The book was based on a series of articles that Tarbell wrote for McClure’s Magazine from 1902 to 1904, which attracted widespread attention and sparked public outrage.

Tarbell had a personal interest in the subject, as her father was one of the independent oil producers who had been ruined by Rockefeller’s predatory pricing and unfair competition. She spent years researching the history and operations of Standard Oil, interviewing former employees, competitors, government officials, and whistleblowers. She also obtained hundreds of documents, such as letters, contracts, court records, and memos, that exposed the company’s secret deals, illegal rebates, political influence, and market manipulation.

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Tarbell’s work was a masterpiece of investigative journalism that combined meticulous facts with a compelling narrative. She showed how Rockefeller had built his empire by crushing his rivals, exploiting his workers, evading taxes, bribing politicians, and violating antitrust laws. She also portrayed Rockefeller as a cold and greedy tycoon who cared only for his own profit and power.

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Tarbell’s exposé had a profound impact on American society and politics. It galvanized public opinion against Standard Oil and its allies and inspired other journalists to expose the corruption and injustice of the Gilded Age. It also prompted the federal government to take action against the oil monopoly, leading to the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1911 that ordered the breakup of Standard Oil into 34 separate companies.

Abraham Lincoln

Another major subject that Tarbell wrote about was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who led the nation through the Civil War and abolished slavery. Tarbell wrote several books and articles on Lincoln’s life and career, drawing on extensive research and interviews with his contemporaries.

Tarbell’s interest in Lincoln began when she was living in Paris in the early 1890s, where she planned to write a biography of Madame Roland, a heroine of the French Revolution. However, she changed her mind when she discovered that there was a lack of reliable sources on Roland’s life. She decided to switch to Lincoln instead, as she believed that he was a more relevant and inspiring figure for her time.

Tarbell returned to America in 1894 and joined McClure’s Magazine as a writer and editor. She began working on a series of articles on Lincoln that were published from 1895 to 1899. The articles were later collected into two books: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1900) and The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (1896).

Tarbell’s work on Lincoln was widely praised for its accuracy, detail, and readability. She uncovered more than 300 documents that had never been published before, such as speeches, letters, photographs, and personal anecdotes. She also traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people who had known or met Lincoln, such as his friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, rivals, and enemies.

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Tarbell’s work on Lincoln presented a vivid and human portrait of the president, showing his humble origins, his self-education, his political rise, his moral courage, his sense of humor, his compassion, his grief, and his leadership. She also explored his views on slavery, democracy, religion, and war. She portrayed Lincoln as a complex and flawed man who faced many challenges and made many mistakes, but who also had a vision and a will to preserve the Union and free the slaves.

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Other Works

Besides Standard Oil and Lincoln, Tarbell wrote about many other topics and people in American history. Some of her other works include:

  • A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1895), a four-volume biography of the French emperor was based on her research in Paris.
  • He Knew Lincoln (1907), a collection of stories about Lincoln’s acquaintances and associates.
  • The Tariff in Our Times (1911), is a book that examined the history and effects of tariff policies in America.
  • The Life of Elbert H. Gary (1925), is a biography of the chairman of U.S. Steel who was involved in labor disputes and antitrust cases.
  • The Nationalizing of Business (1936), is a book that analyzed the role of government regulation in business affairs.
  • All in the Day’s Work (1939), is an autobiography that recounted Tarbell’s life and career as a journalist and reformer.

Tarbell also wrote several books on the role of women in society, such as The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Women (1915). She advocated for women’s education, economic independence, and political participation, but she also criticized some aspects of the suffrage and feminist movements.


Ida Tarbell was one of the most influential and respected journalists of her time. She was a pioneer of investigative journalism and muckraking and a leader of social reform. She wrote about many important issues and personalities that shaped American history and inspired many readers and writers with her courage, integrity, and skill.

Tarbell’s work had a lasting impact on American culture and politics. Her exposé of Standard Oil helped to curb the power of monopolies and to promote fair competition and consumer protection. Her biographies of Lincoln helped to preserve his memory and legacy as a national hero and a symbol of democracy. Her writings on women helped to advance their rights and opportunities in society.

Tarbell was honored with many awards and recognitions for her achievements. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1914 and received honorary degrees from several universities. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932 for her efforts to promote world peace. She died in 1944 at 86, leaving behind a rich and remarkable body of work that continues to inform and inspire generations of Americans.


A self-motivated and hard-working individual, I am currently engaged in the field of digital marketing to pursue my passion of writing and strategising. I have been awarded an MSc in Marketing and Strategy with Distinction by the University of Warwick with a special focus in Mobile Marketing. On the other hand, I have earned my undergraduate degrees in Liberal Education and Business Administration from FLAME University with a specialisation in Marketing and Psychology.

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