In November 1902, Ida Tarbell published ‘The Birth of an Industry’, the first of 19 reports for McClure’s Magazine about the organisation that had come to control 90 per cent of the business – still new at the time – of producing oil. Collected two years later in her History of the Standard Oil Company, the series did little to celebrate the company or its founder, John D. Rockefeller. ‘It is doubtful if there has ever been a time since 1872 when he has run a race with a competitor and started fair,’ Tarbell wrote. But she didn’t call for an end to the corporate form Rockefeller had done so much to invent. Instead, she saw in his creation an ideal case study. ‘The perfection of the organisation of the Standard,’ she wrote, ‘the ability and daring with which it has carried out its projects, make it the pre-eminent trust of the world, the one whose story is best fitted to illuminate the subject of combinations of capital.’ Tarbell grew up in Pennsylvania oil country, and admired the ingenuity and ambition of the independent oilmen (her father among them) who had ‘peopled a waste place of the earth’ and ‘added millions upon millions of dollars to the wealth of the United States’. She admired Rockefeller’s genius and discipline as well, but for Tarbell, and eventually for the US government, Standard’s long record of collusion, espionage and predatory pricing was too much. ‘I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could,’ Tarbell later wrote. ‘But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.’ In 1911, the Supreme Court, influenced in part by Tarbell’s disappointed muckraking, split Rockefeller’s company into 34 ‘baby Standards’. In 1973, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, largest of the babies, changed its name to Exxon Corporation. And in 1998 Exxon recombined with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which had by then changed its name to Mobil. The new company, with eighty thousand employees in nearly two hundred countries, remains our ‘pre-eminent trust’, but – as Steve Coll argues in his fine bookend to Tarbell’s masterpiece – it has also become something more.
LRB 8 November 2012 | PDF Download