Memories of Ida Tarbell

It was many years ago that our then in-house historian and friend Steve Thorning lent me the work of Ida Tarbell.

That introduction came to be after a quizzing about monopolies and business. At the time corporate media operations were swallowing up small operators. Looking for answers and expecting same, this book served as some homework until Steve and I would talk again about the merits of fairness and decency in business.

The name Ida Tarbell stuck, due in part to her peculiar name, but moreso because her work as an investigative journalist resonated. One of her more celebrated works was The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. Initially columns on the subject were printed in McClure’s magazine, a monthly illustrated periodical that delved into investigative journalism. The central character at Standard Oil was John D. Rockefeller who coined the nickname “Miss Tarbarrel” for Ida. If that weren’t a curious enough similarity to today – how a billionaire dealt with a female detractor by name calling – how about Rockefeller’s banker approaching Tarbell with the threat of closing down her employer’s magazine by hampering its finances? This all sounds so familiar.

Another phrase from that time was the “progressive era.” This column wasn’t intended, nor should it be relied upon, as a history lesson, but there are things we should all understand. History does repeat itself. The unfortunate downside to believing that concept and looking for easy answers is much like driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror.

The late 1800s was a time of great disruption when the second wave of the industrial revolution was underway in earnest. Companies began to mechanize and engage in new technologies like electricity and mass production. Oil production and rail transportation were capitalized. Businessmen grew their wealth exponentially, leading to monopolies where consumers had few choices.

Academics will have spent more time on the subject and surely offer up a far more intellectual synopsis of it all, but we worry that similar times face society today. No better examples exist than the titans of the internet, whether that be Facebook, Amazon or Google.

The internet is the current wild west of unregulated commerce and opinion.

With the likes of Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren and others decrying this unregulated state of affairs, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared his company would need to sue the government if efforts were made to break up his monopoly. Much like Standard Oil, Facebook has bought out many competitors that may have impacted its market dominance.

So, when certain commentators or political parties here decry the progressives as if they are a bad thing, remember Ida Tarbell – we have been here before and overdue regulation is around the corner.


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