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Tarbell, Ida Minerva (1857–1944) - Business History

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Ida Minerva Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, on a farm in Erie County, Pennsylvania, to Franklin Summer Tarbell, the first manufacturer of wooden tanks for the oil industry in Pennsylvania, and Esther Ann (McCullough) Tarbell, a former teacher whose ancestors included Sir Walter Raleigh and Samuel Seabury, America’s first Anglican bishop. Ida attended local public schools after her family moved from the rowdy settlement of Rouseville near the oil fields of Pennsylvania to Titusville. She received her B.A. from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, as one of only five women enrolled and the only woman in the freshman class. She graduated in 1880 and began teaching at the Poland (Ohio) Union Seminary, then returned to Meadville to write for Chautauquan magazine from 1883 to 1891.

In 1891 Tarbell went to Paris to study the role of women in the French Revolution. She enrolled at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France and continued writing freelance, including articles for the newly formed McClure’s magazine. In 1894 S. S. McClure, the publisher, encouraged her to return to New York to write full time for the magazine and to supply the text for a collection of Napoleon prints he was about to publish. Her articles on Napoleon were printed in book form in 1895 under the title A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte , which sold 100,000 copies. (It was republished as McClure’s Complete Life of Napoleon in London, also in 1895, and enlarged as A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1901.) In 1896 she published Madame Roland: A Biographical Study and The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (assisted by J. McCan Davis). In 1897 she edited Napoleon’s Addresses: Selections from the Proclamations, Speeches and Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte . In 1900 her articles on Abraham Lincoln, aided by J. McCan Davis, were collected into a book entitled The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Drawn from Original Sources and Containing Many Speeches, Letters and Telegrams Hitherto Unpublished in two volumes. It became the standard work on Lincoln until 1947, when the Lincoln papers were finally made available to researchers.

In 1900 Tarbell also began her famous series of articles on the development of the Standard Oil Trust, published in book form as The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904. In 1906 Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker purchased the American Magazine , which they edited until 1915. Tarbell wrote two more books on Lincoln, He Knew Lincoln (1907) and Father Abraham (1909), and edited one, Selections from the Letters, Speeches and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln (1911), and began another series of articles on the tariff which was published in 1911 in book form as The Tariff in Our Times . In 1912 she wrote The Business of Being a Woman and in 1915 The Ways of Woman . She studied the trends in business and wrote New Ideals in Business: An Account of Their Practice and Their Effects upon Men and Profits in 1916. In 1919 she wrote The Rising Tide: The Story of Sabinsport (her only novel) before returning to Lincoln for In Lincoln’s Chair (1920), Boy Scouts’ Life of Lincoln (1921), He Knew Lincoln and Other Billy Brown Stories (1922), and In the Footsteps of the Lincolns (1924). In 1922 Tarbell wrote Peacemakers—Blessed and Otherwise: At an International Conference , then two biographies of business leaders, The Life of Elbert H. Gary: The Story of Steel (1925) and Owen D. Young: A New Type of Industrial Leader (1932), followed by A Reporter for Lincoln: Story of Henry E. Wing, Soldier and Newspaperman in 1927.

When American Magazine was sold in 1915, Tarbell became a lecturer for Chautauqua on business; she continued this career until 1932. She was also on the Woman’s Committee of the United States Council of National Defense in World War I and was a delegate to President Wilson’s Industrial Conference in 1919 and President Harding’s Conference on Unemployment in 1921. Tarbell wrote one last book on business in 1935, The Nationalizing of Business, 1878–1898 , as part of the distinguished A History of American Life series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., and Dixon Ryan Fox. She continued to teach courses on the methods of biography into her eighties; she published her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work , in 1939 at the age of eighty-two. Ida Tarbell died of pneumonia in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on January 6, 1944.

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