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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
Text 2. Standard Oil
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Text 3. The Octopus in the West
Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
Text 12. Women and Power

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
Ida M. Tarbell
John D. Rockefeller
Standard Oil
- Ida M. Tarbell, "The History of the Standard Oil Company," McClure's Magazine, 1902-1904, excerpts
- John D. Rockefeller, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events, 1909 (publ. 1933), excerpts
- U.S. Supreme Court, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey et al. v. U.S., 1911, excerpts

Throughout the period cartoonists portrayed the Standard Oil Company as a giant, grasping octopus. Its principal founder John D. Rockefeller got into the oil refining business in 1863. He soon expanded his company by bringing together five refineries into the firm of Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler. In 1870 he established the Standard Oil Company of Ohio and embarked upon a strategy of buying up rivals and consolidating all oil refining under one company. His business practices led to a successful antitrust suit filed by the Ohio attorney general in 1892. They also led to Ida M. Tarbell's famous muckraking exposé of the company. Tarbell joined the staff of McClure's Magazine in 1894. After writing a popular series on Abraham Lincoln, she turned her attention to Standard Oil, the company that had forced her father out of business. In a series of articles from 1902 to 1904 she revealed the machinations through which the company achieved its monopoly, especially the rebate deals it worked out with various railroads. In 1904 the articles were collected as The History of the Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller's Random Reminiscences is in part a direct response to Tarbell's work.

Through opposing viewpoints we have condensed the argument between Tarbell and Rockefeller. She accuses him of building his company through "hard dealing, sly tricks, [and] special privileges." He maintains that his company expanded through a series of logical steps dictated by market growth. In 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court said Tarbell was right. 5 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How does Tarbell portray Standard Oil as an octopus?
  2. Compare Tarbell's criticism of America's business ethic with that offered by Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order. (See Text 9.)
  3. How, in her view, does Rockefeller's villainy go beyond the oil refining business?
  4. How does Rockefeller account for Standard Oil's growth?
  5. How does Rockefeller defend the size of his enterprise?
  6. Which argument is more effective?

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Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
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