Ida Minerva Tarbell:
The Woman Who Challenged Big Business–and Won!

One of the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year
& a finalist for the YALSA Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

“Thank you, Emily McCully, for bringing to life the story of Ida Tarbell, the American heroine who battled the ‘robber barons’ and won. This is history at its best.”- David Nasaw Distinguished Professor History at CUNY Graduate School, author of The Patriarch, Andrew Carnegie, and The Chief, William Randolph Hearst; twice finalist for Pulitzer Prize, winner of Bancroft Prize for best history.

A Best Book of the Year – Bank Street College of Education

This is the first biography of Ida Minerva Tarbell (1857-1944) in thirty years. Before exposés were routine, she wrote a series of magazine articles detailing the shady business practices of John D. Rockefeller, head of the powerful conglomerate called the Standard Oil Trust. Ida’s articles, and the public uproar they aroused, resulted in legislation against trusts, and in government regulation of business in general. The public devoured her articles and they made history.

Audio Book from Amazon.

Washington Post

A muckraker who rejected the term as well as an educated woman who opposed women’s suffrage, Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) may seem like an unlikely role model to inspire the next generation. But Emily Arnold McCully presents the story of Tarbell and her times with such nuance and depth that young readers will appreciate Tarbell’s difficult circumstances, vast energies and pioneering journalism. Restless and curious from an early age (even after she got nightmares from sneaking a peek at three dead bodies), Tarbell grew up in Western Pennsylvania, which was drastically altered during those oil boom years, and then traveled widely as a journalist. Swearing off romance for reasons McCully pins mostly on her parents’ uneasy relationship, Tarbell found intellectual fulfillment as well as financial independence through her professional pursuits. Particularly satisfying are the descriptions here of the lively offices of McClure’s Magazine, where she encouraged other writers and for which she put together now-classic exposŽs of shady business practices, unsafe working conditions and corrupt politicians. Tarbell often railed against a growing disparity between the wealthiest and the rest of society, and her richly researched articles on the Standard Oil Trust and other corporations led to Progressive-era reforms. She considered herself a historian and truth-seeker rather than a raker of muck, but either way, Tarbell’s thoughtful life and work stand in stark contrast to the money-mad, turn-of-the-century titans. – Abby McGanney Nolan

Horn Book Magazine

McCully, best known for her picture books, here creates a multilayered cradle-to-grave biography of Ida M. Tarbell, the crusading journalist of the early twentieth century. Readers meet young Ida growing up in Pennsylvania oil country, a tarnished backwater of the Gilded Age. A curious child, Tarbell strove to become a botanist, and eventually a teacher, one of the few jobs open to women. Her teaching career was short-lived, but the lessons of scientific inquiry led to a dogged determination to get to the bottom of an issue, which would serve her well when she began her writing career. McCully re-creates the era’s social context for women as well as the culture and importance of print media, particularly the influence of magazines such as McClure’s, where Ida made her mark. Although known as a muckraker, Tarbell dismissed that label and insisted that she was a historian; the attention given here to her research and major works, particularly her exposé of John D. Rockefeller, substantiate that idea. Famously, Ida Tarbell did not believe in women’s suffrage, and McCully neither condemns nor excuses her for that position. Instead, she carefully details Tarbell’s thinking on the issue and allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Here the work of the biographer mirrors the work of her subject. Source notes, bibliography, photo credits, and an index are included. -Betty Carter


Born before the Civil War, Ida Tarbell had the intelligence, drive, and personality to carve out a career for herself in a man’s world, writing hard-hitting articles for McClure’s magazine and becoming a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism. Having grown up in a Pennsylvania community that rose with the oil boom and suffered as a result of price fixing and other underhanded tactics, Tarbell understood the social costs of unsavory business practices. After a thorough investigation, she wrote a series of articles on the rise of Standard Oil and their devious methods of stifling competition. Her writing swayed public opinion and prompted public officials to act. In her first book for young adults, Caldecott Medalist McCully shows a fine ability to organize material and present it in a lively, readable way. She deals head-on with the thorny topic of Tarbell’s opposition to women’s suffrage, perhaps one reason this intriguing, historically significant woman has been overlooked by other biographers for young people. McCully also places information about Tarbell within the broader context of her upbringing as well as the social norms and political forces that informed her choices. Illustrated with many period photos, this informative title brings Tarbell and her times into sharper focus for readers today. – Carolyn Phelan

School Library Journal

McCully expertly brings to life the story of a unique and determined woman in this well-written and thoroughly researched biography, filled with numerousÊand pertinent photographs. She places Tarbell’s story into historical context, detailing how the country was just discovering the hidden wealth of oil and all theÊopportunities that came with it and how certain individuals were making shrewd business deals to guarantee large incomes. All of the corruption and secretÊmachinations affected many citizens. Tarbell went where no one had gone before, becoming an investigative reporter for a top magazine. Though women were littleÊrespected at the time, she dove right into a man’s world, exposing the somewhat shady side of John D. Rockefeller, head of the powerful Standard Oil Trust. As Tarbell’sÊarticles stirred public emotions, she grew more and more famous for her outspokenness and perseverance. Readers will not only get a feel for Tarbell, but they’ll alsoÊget a sense of the changing world she inhabited. – Carol Hirsche, Provo City Library, UT

Intelligent, curious, and determined to succeed, Ida rose to prominence, becoming known as “the most famous woman in America,” in an era when women had few options and no rights. Her story is a panorama of American life at the turn of the twentieth century, including politics, the women’s suffrage movement, the economy, big business, the role of printed periodicals in informing public opinion, the literary landscape, and important people in all these areas. At the heart of the story are Ida’s turbulent, roller-coaster years with the volatile S.S. McClure and the groundbreaking work she did at McClure’s Magazine.

From her childhood in oil country to her pinnacle of fame to her later years as a recognized authority on almost everything, Ida is revealed as a fascinating and complex person: quirky, opinionated, reserved, adventurous, independent – a woman proving herself in a man’s world.

Tarbell’s mission to expose immoral business practices continues to be an important cause. The issues she brought to light through her investigative work – corporate greed, economic inequality, corruption, money in politics, regulation and its absence remain urgent issues in our country today.