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The exploitation of the working class. Immigration. Political and corporate corruption. Poverty. Women’s suffrage. Race relations. Food processing. Family values.
These are some of the many concerns that marked the brief, exhilarating Progressive Era in American History. From the 1890s to the 1930s, a movement swept the country, seeking to resolve a variety of social issues, many of them resulting from modernization and the explosion of industrialization in the 19th century.
This was a time when the culture was changing in other ways, too. Americans had a new pastime as “moving pictures” were shown in theaters across the country. The way people listened to music was evolving – the publication of sheet music commercialized popular tunes, which increasingly reflected the influence of rhythms and melodies of African American artists.
So, we had to wonder, with such an abundance of fascinating history to explore, how does a researcher begin with the Progressive Era? One way to gain deeper insight into radicalism and reform of this period is through the lens of those people who lived it, inspired it and wrote about it – the muckrakers.
Due to the rise of advertising, magazines subscriptions were cheap and ubiquitous at the turn of the 20th century, impacting the way people received the news, and the way people wrote about it. Investigative journalists and writers of the era who became known as “muckrakers” – including Upton Sinclair, Nelly Bly, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens – sought to inspire social change by exposing injustice and abuse in government and business.
While muckraking is often associated with sensationalistic reporting, in many cases these journalists demonstrated the enormous power of the press, and the democratic value of fact-based investigative journalism – also a timely topic in our current era.
So, let’s delve in with one of most iconic pieces of muckraker journalism which is still considered a shining example of excellence in evidence-based reporting: “The History of the Standard Oil Company” by Ida Tarbell.
McClure’s Magazine1 was enormously popular in middle class households in the early days of the Progressive Era, and the publication played a critical role in spawning the tradition of muckraker journalism. It featured scathingly controversial articles like the one revealing exploitative labor practices at the United States Steel Corporation and a detailed history of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science church.
But most famously, McClure’s published “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” Ida Tarbell’s 1903 exposé on the corporation’s immoral and illegal business practices. The 19-part serial roused public outcry that to led to the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly, a testament to the significant power wielded by the press.
Tarbell’s exposé was inspired by her childhood experiences growing up in “one of the rough and rowdy oil boomtowns” in Pennsylvania, where her father sought his fortune in the oil industry, according to Paula Treckel’s article “Lady Muckraker”2 in the journal American History. “As a child,” Treckel wrote, “Ida saw how boom and bust cycles swept through the dirty, oil-slick communities that dotted the countryside and witnessed the horrors of accidents – fires and explosions – that plagued the industry.”
Tarbell also observed firsthand the tumult that ensued as independent oil producers were taken over by John D. Rockefeller, the powerful and wealthy industrialist behind the Standard Oil Company monopoly.
According to Treckel, this personal connection to her subject imbued Tarbell’s report with “moral outrage, passion for justice, and historian's eye for detail to reveal the inner workings of Rockefeller's business empire to the world.”
Upon the 1904 publication of “The History of the Standard Oil Company” in book form, The New York Times3 lauded Tarbell’s commitment to fair reporting, noting her reliance on “an enormous mass of statistics” culled from lawsuits, government investigations and court records. “Indeed,” The Times noted, “nearly a third of the volume is given over to documents and records on which are based the facts of her story.”
Tarbell's investigation dug deep into such charges against Rockefeller as his control over oil markets (which he kept in short supply) and secret arrangements with competitors to build a “trust” which he oversaw. According to a more recent article by Steve Weinberg in the Columbia Journalism Review,4 at the time of Tarbell’s work, Rockefeller “was at the zenith of his power. He had no intention of letting a mere journalist – and a woman, at that – assault his empire.” Largely, he just ignored her.
Neither Rockefeller, nor her gender, proved to be obstacles for Tarbell, Weinberg added. Rather, her biggest challenge “was the craft of journalism.” Her methodology involved researching “hundreds of thousands of pages scattered throughout the nation – then fleshing out her findings through well informed interviews with the company’s current and former executives, competitors, government regulators, antitrust lawyers, and academic experts.”
This was work no one had done before on such a scale. As a result, Tarbell defined what would set the bar for investigative reporting. Weinberg hailed the legacy of Tarbell’s report, calling it “probably the greatest work of investigative journalism ever written.”
As a result of Tarbell's reporting, the Supreme Court found in 1911 that Standard Oil was an illegal monopoly in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Standard was ordered to break up into dozens of smaller companies. However, Rockefeller retained holdings in each of them, which ended up being enormously profitable to him.
Dissertations can also be a fantastic tool when getting started on a research project on the muckrakers and the Progressive Era. Not only can they spark some great ideas, but the bibliographies are basically a list of recommended resources.
Here is a sample of some research on muckraker journalists from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, the largest commercial repository of graduate dissertations and theses containing over 4 million works from across the globe, and with more than 130,000 added to the database each year.
For further research
Explore primary source materials to uncover more about the muckrakers and their influence from History Vault. Discover insights on works of another renowned muckraker, Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle5). Learn about his attempt to run for governor of California and his work as social visionary in these modules:
You can also conduct your own investigative research on the Standard Oil Company with official documents from the Law and Society Since the Civil War: American Legal Manuscripts from the Harvard Law School Library.
Coming soon to History Vault, the Progressive Era Collection
Check back for more posts exploring social movements. See additional resources including The Progressive Era video6, Muckrakers and the Progressive Era ebook7, primary source documents, scholarly articles, literary works, and more. Plus, sign up to let us know that you’re interested in learning about ways to improve research and learning outcomes.