Ida Tarbell was born in 1857 in Erie County, Pennsylvania. She grew up in oil country, her father working as an oil producer and refiner. In 1872, due to an agreement between the up-and-coming John Rockefeller's refiners and the Pennsylvania railroads, the whole region where Ida grew up was hit hard with a recession.
In 1880, Ida was the sole woman in the graduating class from Allegheny College. She worked first as a science teacher, then as a journalist at a small newspaper, then went to Paris in the late 1800s to write a biography on French Revolution figure Madame Rouland.
In 1894, Ida was hired as an editor for McClure's magazine. Her popularity grew very quickly when a series she wrote about Abraham Lincoln nearly double the magazine's circulation. Though her talent for historical portraits was clear, Ida wanted to use her writing for something more germane to the current situation, so she soon began work on a series about Rockefeller and Standard Oil.
Originally slated to be a piece in three parts, Ida's series on Standard Oil was immensely popular and grew to a 19-part series, published from 1902 to 1904. The series was notable for the breathe of Ida's research, as well as for her condemnation of Rockefeller's unethical behavior. Though some criticized Ida as “muckraking”, her Standard Oil series has also been hailed as a breakthrough in the history of investigative journalism. The piece was later printed as a book.
Even though Ida worked as a journalist in a time when there were very few women writing, she was not a feminist. She opposed the suffrage movement and said that women's rights campaigns belittled the important contributions of women in the private sphere. Ida turned down offers to be part of Peace Ship to end World War I and President Wilson's Tariff Commission (on which she would have been the first woman).
Ida died in 1944, at the age of 86.