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“The King of the Combinations (John D. Rockefeller),” chromolithograph by J. S. Pugh, Puck, February 27, 1901

By 1900 John D. Rockefeller, founder and largest shareholder of the Standard Oil Company, controlled more than 90 percent of U.S. oil production, dominating the world market. Rockefeller controlled pipelines and arranged for secret, discriminatory railroad rates, which allowed him to cut prices and force competitors out of business. Rockefeller’s conglomerate of companies was called a “trust” or “combination.”

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“The King of the Combinations (John D. Rockefeller),” chromolithograph by J. S. Pugh, Puck, February 27, 1901

Ida M. Tarbell: Exposing Standard Oil

The rise of corporate trusts and monopolies in the Progressive Era spurred Congress to legislate regulations on business practices. The first such law, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, met its greatest test in a case against the Standard Oil Company. Journalist Ida M. Tarbell brought the company’s shady dealings to light, and the federal government sued Standard Oil. The Supreme Court ordered Standard Oil’s breakup in 1911, but only after more narrowly defining illegal monopoly. Congress strengthened antitrust laws with the Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Antitrust Act.

We, the people of the United States, and nobody else, must cure whatever is wrong in the industrial situation, typified by this narrative of the growth of the Standard Oil Company.

Ida M. Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904