Basically, it refines the age-old principal of mutual self-help through voluntary cooperation. The ancient world had its Chamber of Commerce. Today’s typical Chamber of Commerce, however, is probably an outgrowth of the trade fairs and guilds of medieval Europe.
As long as commerce has existed, traders have banded together. The first purpose of their association was, perhaps, to seek common protection against enemies. Later, they established codes to govern trade, and still later, they attempted to influence legislation. These early associations of traders have little in common with the modern Chamber of Commerce, a Twentieth Century product.
The first known use of the term “Chamber of Commerce” occurred in Marseille,France, where such an organization was established by the City Council late in the 17th century. European Chambers of Commerce differ considerably from the American organization. Although they were associations of businessmen, they operated frequently as quasi-public agencies, vested with administrative and judicial powers with respect to trade.
The oldest Chamber of Commerce on the American Continent is that of the State of New York, organized in 1768 and chartered by King George III in 1770. The second oldest is the Charleston,SCChamber, formed in 1773. By 1890, the number of local chambers had increased to forty. The early American Chambers, like their European prototypes, were organized for the protection and promotion of commerce. The establishment of the New York State Chamber, for example, was a direct result of the obnoxious Stamp Tax Act.
In their role as associations of businessmen, the early Chambers of Commerce undertook to promote the sale of goods. They organized markets, enforced rules of trade and protected goods in transit. But their activities were limited to those directly concerned with Commerce. The emergence of the Chamber of Commerce as a true community organization comes later when businessmen realized that their own propriety depended upon development of a prosperous, healthy and happy community. A good business climate must be maintained.
Prior to 1912, most local Chambers were primarily interested in attracting new industries to their community. Civic and commercial development took second place. Gradually, Chambers came to recognize that industrial growth was dependent upon civic and commercial development. In fact, so much emphasis was placed on civic problems that many Chambers began to assume the character of civic associations. Their membership was all-inclusive and their program was largely one of promoting public facilities. By 1925, it was perceived that Chambers, in order to be true to their purpose, must remain primarily business organizations, and express the point of view of business.
Another major change took place with the advent of the New Deal in 1933. Governmental affairs at all levels became major interpreters of government to business and conversely, of business to government. In this field of activity, the Chamber of Commerce is assuming growing responsibilities and achieving increasing usefulness.
In the United States, there are more than five thousand Chambers of Commerce, most of which serve local communities. There are also thirty-two State Chambers of Commerce, as well as the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. Chamber executives belong to a national professional association, the American Chamber of Commerce executives, as well as state and regional associations.
An association of business and professional people, the Chamber of Commerce harnesses the talent and imagination of the leadership in planning and carrying out sound programs for the economic well-being of the community.