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Bringing down America's House of Oil

A new look at the investigative reporting that lead to the breakup of John D. Rockefeller's monopoly,

By Burton W. Folsom Jr. / April 22, 2008

Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by Steve Weinberg W. W. Norton & Company 306 pp., $25.95

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In Taking on the Trust, Steve Weinberg has written a dual biography with a powerful plot: Ida Tarbell, the first investigative journalist, brings down John D. Rockefeller, America's first billionaire and the head of Standard Oil. Weinberg's book tell us how she did it and what it meant for the United States.

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Weinberg, who is a journalist himself, clearly sides with Tarbell, the star reporter for McClure's, the trendsetting magazine of the Progressive Era. Tarbell paved the way for women journalists, with bestselling biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Madame Roland. But despite her literary success, she harbored strong grievances against John D. Rockefeller, whose ability to market oil at eight cents a gallon enabled him to sell a phenomenal 60 percent of all oil sold in the world.

Back in Rockefeller's heyday, oil was mainly refined into kerosene to illuminate homes and offices. While most refiners dumped oil by-products into nearby rivers, Rockefeller hired researchers to develop waxes, paving materials, and detergents from the seemingly unmarketable sludge. He also developed the technology that enabled him to extract more kerosene out of a barrel of oil than anyone else. Rockefeller became a billionaire by making a fraction of a cent selling millions of gallons of kerosene to every civilized part of the earth.

New wealth for many

Weinberg admits that the deal was often a win-win for everyone. The US became a major industrial power and inefficient refiners in the US sold out for Standard Oil stock, which often made them comfortable for life. As one editor in oil-rich Titusville, Penn., exclaimed, "Men until now barely able to get a poor living off poor land are made rich beyond their wildest dreaming."

What, then, was the problem? For many Americans, there was none. Ida Tarbell, however, grew up in the Pennsylvania oil fields with a father who chose to compete with Rockefeller rather than sell to him. When Franklin Tarbell proved unable to market oil for eight cents a gallon, he brooded at home and Ida's blissful childhood was damaged. Her brother later became an officer for a competing oil company, adding to the family's grumbling about Standard Oil.

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