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Ida Tarbell: Hysterical Woman vs. Historical Facts
Background Information for Teachers

Ida Tarbell
In the late 1800's and early 1900's entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, etc., were building huge business empires and making fortunes. By shrewdly taking advantage of opportunities and sometimes making secret deals that were unfair to other entrepreneurs and businessmen, not only did some of them make millions of dollars for themselves, but they helped to build the nation into an industrial giant. When the companies they created became so powerful that laborers were being cheated out of fair wages or businesses out of opportunities to compete, investigative reporters wrote magazine articles and books that exposed the unfair practices. At its best, that journalism led to legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 and court actions that brought the most powerful companies under some control. This journalism was also criticized for being sensationalist, for slanting facts, for trying to bring down the pillars of American business.
Because of the exposes written by some investigative reports, Teddy Roosevelt supported legislation to control some of the most blatant misuse of corporate power. But in response to some of the journalism which was attacking members of Congress, in a speech to the House of Representatives (1906), Roosevelt figuratively slapped the reporters on the wrists by calling them muckrakers: "In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor."
In 1870 the Standard Oil Trust was created by John D. Rockefeller. For years it was suspected that company practices were hindering free trade and that the company was receiving rebates from the railroads. In 1882, federal legislation forced the Standard Oil Trust to separate into its components. The Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887 to attempt to control what was happening with the railroads. Ida Tarbell's work helped push the situation into the courts where, in May, 1911, the US Supreme Court finally forced the corporation to divide into more than 30 companies.

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