MUCKRAKERS/ IDA TARBELL
Born in a log home in Hatch Hollow, northwestern Pennsylvania, on November 5, 1857, Ida Minerva Tarbell grew up amid the derricks of the Oil Region. Her father, Frank Tarbell, built wooden oil storage tanks and later became an oil producer and refiner. "Things were going well in father's business," she would write years later. "There was ease such as we had never known; luxuries we had never heard of. ...Then suddenly [our] gay, prosperous town received a blow between the eyes." The 1872The work of the muckrakers covered a broad swathe of topics of popular concern. Long suspicious of the power of big business and politicians, the public devoured the muckrakers' detailed and often hotly indignant accounts of industrial fraud and political corruption. Many topics were of direct concern to consumers, especially the accounts of adulteration of the nation's food supply and harmful patent medicines. In addition, exposés on how large business interests were destroying free competition were important to consumers because of the implications such monopolies had in creating unfair pricing and shoddy merchandise.
Some of the most prominent writers on these topics included the novelist, Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle (1906) alarmed middle-class Americans about unsanitary methods in food production. Ida Tarbell wrote a famous account of how the Standard Oil trust had crushed its competition with unfair methods (1904). And Samuel Hopkins Adams produced an electrifying account of fraud in the patent medicine business in 1905.
The muckrakers were responsible for helping galvanize popular support for reforms that directly benefited consumers. Most notable were the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which imposed nationwide standards of purity and safety on foods and drugs, and the breakup of some of the most notorious trusts that were threatening the competitive system of free enterprise.
After graduating from Allegheny College, the sole woman in the class of 1880, Tarbell moved to Ohio to teach science, but resigned after two years. She would find her true calling just months later back in Pennsylvania, when she met the editor of a small magazine, The Chautauquan, published in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Tarbell’s inquisitive mind and her determination to have a career pushed her to become intensely invested in her writing and research projects. At 34, fascinated by the story of Madame Roland, the leader of an influential salon during the French Revolution, she moved to Paris to write her biography.
Library of Congress
Overseas, Tarbell supported herself by writing numerous articles on the City of Light for the popular magazines of the day. It was this work that got the attention of editor Samuel Sidney McClure, then looking for writers for his new monthly. Tarbell was hired as an editor in 1894, and soon became McClure's Magazine's most successful writer when her series on Abraham Lincoln nearly doubled the circulation of the magazine. Another serialized biography followed, this time on Napoleon, establishing her as a gifted historical writer and an insightful judge of character.