Standard Oil Company

The Standard Oil Company dominated the emerging oil industry in the United States between 1870 and 1911. Ultimately incorporated as a holding company in 1899, the corporation produced, processed, marketed, and transported approximately 90 percent of American oil during the early part of the twentieth century and became the first industrial monopoly in United States history.

The origins of the Standard Oil Company date back to 1863, when John D. Rockefeller, John D.Rockefeller, Maurice B. Clark, and Samuel J. Andrews formed an oil refining company in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1870, Henry M. Flagler had replaced Clark in the company, and the company itself had become the largest oil refining business in Cleveland. That same year, the business was incorporated as the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. In 1882, Rockefeller and eight other trustees formed theMonopolies;petroleum industryStandard Oil Trust, which was governed by the Standard Oil Trust Agreement and enabled the group to monopolize the oil industry. The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, also founded in 1882, was one of forty corporations owned by the trust. By 1884, the corporate headquarters had been relocated to New York City.Standard Oil Company

A political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank morphed into an octopus with its tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as the U.S. Capitol and a state house. One tentacle reaches for the White House.

(Library of Congress)

In 1892, the Ohio Supreme Court dissolved the trust, but because corporate headquarters had been relocated to New York City, the trust was able to continue operating until 1899. That year, the nine trustees changed the name of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey to simply the Standard Oil Company and incorporated it as a holding company. Because a holding company’s only purpose is to own other companies’ stocks, the trustees transferred all the assets previously held by the trust into this new company. This arrangement allowed the Standard Oil Company to continue to monopolize the United States oil industry.

Although the Standard Oil Company succeeded in controlling the American oil industry, politicians and lawmakers continually scrutinized the company’s business practices. In 1904, Ida Tarbell, IdaTarbell, a popular muckrakerMuckraking;Standard Oil, published History of the Standard Oil Company, The (Tarbell)The History of the Standard Oil Company, in which she exposed the company’s manipulative business practices to the American public. In 1906, the United States government sued the company under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, claiming that the company maintained an unfair monopoly of the oil industry. In 1911, the Standard Oil Company’s control of the American oil industry was destroyed when the United States government ordered it to divest itself of its thirty-three largest companies.

Further Reading

  • Bringhurst, Bruce. Antitrust and the Oil Monopoly: The Standard Oil Cases, 1890-1911. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Tarbell, Ida M. The History of the Standard Oil Company. Rev. ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2003.
  • Whitten, David O., and Whitten, Bessie E. The Birth of Big Business in the United States, 1860-1914: Commercial, Extractive, and Industrial Enterprise. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006.

Antitrust legislation

Muckraking journalism

Multinational corporations

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries

Petroleum industry

Robber barons

John D. Rockefeller

Sherman Antitrust Act