Steve Weinberg
Steve Weinberg

Fellowship Title:

Ida Tarbell: A Reporter’s Life

Steve Weinberg
December 5, 1998

Fellowship Year

Obviously intelligent and a fast learner, the 23-year-old Ida M. Tarbell quickly expanded her job description after beginning her journalism career on The Chautauquan magazine during 1880. As a result, she received a broad education on all manner of topics.

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell

She was still 22 years away from the exposé of the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller that clinched her eternal fame. She possessed few of the journalistic skills that would become apparent later. The upbeat, religion-based Chautauquan magazine seemed an unlikely place for a nascent investigative journalist. But appearances can be deceiving.

The editor, Theodore Flood, surprisingly undoctrinaire, opened the pages to many, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints. On issues of special interest to women, he advocated the vote and their entry into the clergy. Articles by contributors, male and female, favored women working outside the home, equal pay for equal work, equal access to education; other articles advocated the more traditional, stay-at-home view. During her seven years on a small staff, Tarbell edited some of those articles, forcing her to consider the divergent arguments carefully. Perhaps significantly, the magazine published opposing views about the theory and practices of monopolies.

Although not hired as a reporter, Tarbell felt compelled to see the world if she could get away from the office, then write about what she had seen. Her first signed article, “The Arts and Industries of Cincinnati,” appeared in the December 1886 issue of The Chautauquan. As readers would have expected, it praised the city’s big industries, cultural offerings and the like. But even at this early stage in her career, Tarbell was not one to overlook problems. Her drive to tell a good story, combined with her unwavering work ethic, led to passages such as this:

…Morally, Cincinnati has much to learn. Its foreign population has made it a beer drinker and Sabbath breaker. The number of beer gardens and saloons scattered about the streets is appalling. Work in the factories and shops stops on Sunday, but to all appearances it is only to give time to frolic. The theaters, gardens and museums are open all day. The result, however, is not so serious as might be anticipated. There are multitudes of pleasure-seekers abroad, but few carousers.

Trusts were without question on Tarbell’s mind, and not just the oil trust of Rockefeller that bedeviled her father. In a sarcastic letter, Tarbell wrote:

There will come to exist a set of families with with common interests—we’ll have an Order of the Oyster, an Order of the Olive, the Order of the Poultry, according to the article which it controls. The wealth policy and privileges of order will descend from father to son. We will have at least a heraldry worthy of the nation of everlasting accumulation. In the Order of Zinc, for instance, we shall have Smith I, Smith II, Smith III and so on from generation to generation.

As she gained knowledge and confidence, Tarbell made her first, tentative, foray into investigative journalism—although neither she nor anybody else called it by that name then. It was 1887. The instigation came from an article in The Chautauquan by a woman suggesting women would never be good inventors, basing that assertion partly on the small number of patents held by females. Tarbell, curious and skeptical, traveled to the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., to learn for herself. As Tarbell later wrote in her autobiography:

I had been disturbed for some time by what seemed to me the calculated belittling of the past achievements of women by many active in the campaign for suffrage. They agreed with their opponents that women had shown little or no creative power. That, they argued, was because man had purposely and jealously excluded her from his field of action. The argument was intended, of course, to arouse women’s indignation, stir them to action. It seemed to me rather to throw doubt on [their] creative capacity…I had seen so much of women’s ingenuity on the farm and in the kitchen that I questioned the figures; and so I went to see, feeling very important if scared at my rashness in daring to penetrate a government department and interview its head. I was able to put my finger at once on over 2000 patents, enough to convince me that, man-made or not, if a woman had a good idea and the gumption to seek a patent she had the same chance as a man to get one.

Tarbell located about three times more patents held by women than had been reported in previous articles. It was a satisfying discovery, but Tarbell had few opportunities at the magazine to investigate. Single and independent at age 33, after six years at the magazine she was beginning to feel trapped. She had always thought of marriage as the trap to avoid; it had never occurred to her that a job could become a trap, too. Tarbell loved to work, but she wanted work that let her grow intellectually and morally:

I was scared by what The Chautauquan seemed to be doing to the plan I had worked out for the development of my mind. I had grown up with a stout determination to follow one course of study to the end, to develop a specialty. The work I was doing demanded a scattering of mind which I began to fear would unfit me for ever thinking anything through. I realized that an editor of value must have made up his mind about more things than had I, feel himself ready to fight for those things if necessary. I had no program in which The Chautauquan was interested. Moreover, I did not want to be an editor. But to break with The Chautauquan meant sacrificing security…I probably should not have been willing to sacrifice what I think I had honestly earned if there had not been growing upon me a conviction of the sterility of security. All about me were people who at least believed themselves materially secure. They lived comfortably within their means, they were busy keeping things as they were, preserving what they had. They were the most respectable people in town, but secretly I was beginning to suspect their respectability.

Tarbell could not shake from her mind the line she had heard from an elderly Presbyterian minister during his sermon. He had leaned over the pulpit, shaken his fist at those in the congregation, then shouted, “You’re dying of respectability.” He had tapped into Tarbell’s deepest fear—that she was sacrificing growth through adventure in exchange for limiting security. After hearing the sermon, Tarbell noticed that individuals she admired, those who seemed secure in their creature comforts, were in fact vulnerable.

She had no clear professional calling, but a gradual change in outlook seemed to point her toward reporting and writing:

My early absorption in rocks and plants had veered to as intense an interest in human beings. I was feeling the same passion to understand men and women, the same eagerness to collect and to classify information about them…I seem to have begun to enter observations on human beings soon after I had settled down to learn how to put a magazine together in an orderly fashion.

The years working for The Chautauquan had heightened Tarbell’s awareness not only of people as objects as study but also of many issues. She seemed especially fascinated with the inequitable distribution of wealth. That natural passion for issues seemed to point Tarbell toward journalistic writing. She wrote an article for the April 1887 issue of The Chautauquan headlined “Women in Journalism.” The necessary qualities she described fit her well—no mistaken thoughts about glamor, a large capacity for work accompanied by good health, versatility, adaptability, dependability, never-flagging curiosity: “General information such as the college or a broad and thoughtful course of reading supplies is indispensable. There really is no information that will not come in play, and the more special knowledge the better.”

Tarbell could have been talking about herself at that early stage of her writing life: “A style clear, vigorous, crisp, nervy, is to a certain extent a natural gift, but if it is not natural, clearness, at least, may be cultivated, and a long way toward vigor is never saying a foolish or unnecessary thing.”

The best writing in the universe could never cover up inaccuracy, in Tarbell’s opinion: “No matter how brilliant a paragrapher…one is, if his statements are not accurate, if his logic is shaky, he cannot succeed. A slip in a fact, or a conclusion, is even more striking if it occurs in a brilliant sentence.”

No angry feminist, Tarbell said of journalism, “The disadvantages peculiar to women are not many. A great liberality of ideas as a rule characterizes journalists than other professional men, and the question of ability is usually the only one raised.” She then contradicted herself, noting that “police and morgue news” were “impossible to a woman.” As she so often would in her later writings, she warned women not to trade on their gender—while simultaneously suggesting women might be their own worst enemy:

…Tears are not a part of the journalistic capital. An editor…has no leisure for ‘feelings’…When a woman enters journalism she must not put forward her femininity to such an extent as to demand that the habits of an office be changed on her account…’I can’t keep track of my lady clerks,’ said the head of a government department to me in Washington, ‘a few of them make themselves so much more numerous than the same number of men.’ A churlish thing to say, perhaps, but the worst of it is, not infrequently such a remark is true…

Almost certainly Tarbell could have stayed at The Chautauquan indefinitely to write about issues. Her job was secure, and the magazine rarely passed up an opportunity to publish educational articles about current controversies. She wrote, or helped write, pieces calling for higher wages; a more humane work day, preferably eight hours; fairly negotiated labor-management contracts; government-provided housing to replace slums; temperance but not prohibition of alcohol.

But her father preached it is better to be an independent worker, to control one own’s destiny as much as possible, rather than become somebody else’s hired hand. Independents like her father had been battling Standard Oil Company and similar conglomerates since 1872. Tarbell observed how the conglomerates’ strategy “kept town and country in a constant state of excitement, of suspicion, of hope, and of despair.” She viewed the oil industry’s corporate chiefs with contempt, as their tactics caused misery in the world of her youth: “Here was a product meant to be a blessing to men—so I believed; and it was proving a curse to the very ones who had discovered it, developed it.”

©1998 Steve Weinberg

Steve Weinberg is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri and the editor of the newsletter for Investigative Reporters and Editors.