History of Chambers

​​As long as commerce has existed, traders have banded together.  The first purpose of their association was to seek common protection against enemies.  Later, they established codes to govern trade, and still later, they attempted to influence legislation.  The early associations of traders have commonalities with the modern Chamber of Commerce – a relatively new product.
Late 1600s
​The first known use of the term "Chamber of Commerce" occurred in Marseilles, 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 organizations.  Although they were associations of businesses, 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 was a statewide Chamber in New York, organized in 1768 and chartered by King George III in 1770.  The second oldest is the Charleston, SC Chamber, formed in 1773.  By 1790, the number of local Chambers had increased to 40.  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 came later, when businessmen realized that their own prosperity depended upon the development of a prosperous, healthy, and happy community. A good business climate must be maintained.
​Prior to World War I, most local Chambers were primarily interested in attracting new industries to their community, what we would now call 'Economic Development'.  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. Chamber leaders began to realize that business objectives and the furtherance of industry was oft times at odds with political officials and government agencies. As such, the role of Chambers began to morph once again - away from a social club or civic association towards a political-minded juggernaut.

​The progressive, anti-business political agenda in Washington D.C., began by President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt at the turn of the century, was in full force by the time President Woodrow Wilson left office in 1924. 
Chambers of Commerce, both individually and collectively, spent the first quarter of the 20th century battling one legislative initiative after another, usually to no avail. ​Thus, by 1925, it was perceived that Chambers, in order to be true to their purpose, must remain primarily business organizations, expressing the point of view of business, and standing up for industry at every turn.
​Another major change took place with the advent of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.  Governmental affairs at all levels became the major items in Chamber of Commerce programs of work. Chambers of Commerce became the interpreter 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.
​The political battle between Chambers of Commerce and labor unions has been brutal, both figuratively and literally, throughout most of the 20th century. ​In response to strong campaign efforts by Chambers to thwart the re-election efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the union bosses created the first Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1944 to raise campaign funds for the sitting president's re-election effort. 
The PAC was created by the union then known as the "Congress of Industrial Organizations" (CIO) which later merged with the "American Federation of Labor" (AFL) to create the powerhouse union - AFL-CIO, still in existence today. It only took one campaign cycle for PACs to catch on in the business community, led by Chambers.
​PACs were an ancillary part of political campaigns in the United States until the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (and its amendment in 1974). Ostensibly, the 1970s laws were established to reduce the influence of money in campaigns by setting strict limits on the amount a particular corporation, union, or private individual could give to a candidate. By soliciting smaller contributions from a much larger number of individuals, however, PACs were able to circumvent these limitations and provide substantial funds for candidates. Chamber PACs thrived under these reforms.
The modern-day Chamber of Commerce in America reflects lessons learned in the past. Chambers are built around collaboration and networking by business professionals garnered from the 1910s. Chambers have retained their distrust of governments and loathing of over-burdensome regulations, learned through the 1920s and reinforced in the 1940s & 1960s. They have retained their position as interpreters of what works for business and what doesn't, strengthened in the the 1930s. And, they are a force to be reckoned with in the campaign fundraising arena and PACs as learned in the 1970s. But, the last 50 years has brought so much more to Chambers. They are now, also, the go-to place for current, succinct, rubber-meets-the-road business education coupled with  community outreach and development,

As of June 2015, there are more than 7,022 Chambers of Commerce in the United States with over 3,000 of them employing at least one full-time staff person and the balance established strictly as volunteer entities. Currently, there are over 13,000 Chambers registered in the official World Chambers Network Registry. There are also state Chambers of Commerce in 32 of the 50 states, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 
Each Chamber is a stand-alone entity with no specific ties to any other Chamber. Chambers may be members in each other’s Chamber, form coalitions to further business goals, or be fierce competitors.
Chambers of Commerce form a sub-set of the larger group known as “associations” which form a sub-set of the larger group known as “Non Profits” or “Not-for-Profits”.
Chamber staff often belong to national professional associations; such as: the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) or the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).