Many people who are interested in oil business have probably heard of the Standard Oil Trust and it’s founding father John Davison Rockefeller. Vertical integrated monopoly of Standard Oil controlled the railways, refineries and oilfields among many other businesses in US while pushing other players out of the market. Running the risk of economic loss in return of power and total control of the whole value chain of oil, the Standard Oil Company was portrayed as a ruthless dragon. When the trust was broken up into 34 independent(!?) companies by the Supreme Court of the US in 1911, the dragon was said to be finally slain. What less people might know is the story of the knight who led the attack on the dragon. And to my surprise that knight was a woman. Ida Minerva Tarbell’s expose of Standard Oil is a great example for a case when pen proves to be mightier than the sword.
Born in 1857 in Pennsylvania, Ida Tarbell was an eyewitness to the Pennsylvanian Oil Rush (starting with the first discovery of Colonel Drake in 1859) which later affected her life greatly. She was the only woman to graduate from her class of Biology at Allegheny College in 1880. Since science wasn’t really welcoming for women she couldn’t become a scientist. Instead she took a job at a magazine where later on she developed her passion for writing.
By the time she took on the biggest trust of all time she had already written many articles at various magazines. The fact that she began working on the case of Standard Oil in 1890 but wasn’t able to publish anything before 1902 shows how much effort she needed to put in. But even though the legwork was exhausting she also had the chance of having an ace in her sleeve. Mr. Henry Rodgers, who had worked for John D. Rockefeller, was willing to talk with Miss Ida Tarbell in private. Miss Tarbell’s 19 articles, written by the help of Mr. Rodgers and her assistant John Sidel, were put together as a book of 2 volumes in 1904 under the name of “The History of Standard Oil Company”.
Miss Tarbell’s work has greatly influenced the federal lawsuit in 1906 against Standard Oil based on 1980 Sherman Antitrust Act, and in 1911 caused the dispersion of the greatest trust of all time. She became one of the pioneering journalists of her time (the progressive era of US) called the muckrakers. Even more importantly, being a woman in the early 20th century and achieving such success she became an inspiring role model for the upcoming generations. She is the proof that true commitment eventually pays. “A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it.” ― Ida TarbellI