A chamber of commerce is a private voluntary association whose membership consists of companies, civic leaders, and individual business people. Its members seek to promote business interests typically in broad-based ways. Chambers of commerce exist on municipal, state, regional, national, and even international levels.
Chambers of commerce evolved from the European merchant guilds of the Middle Ages. The first association to call itself a chamber of commerce was established in 1599 in the port city of Marseilles, France. Subsequently, other chambers of commerce were formed, with widespread proliferation occurring in the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably in France, Britain, and the United States. Today, chambers of commerce—sometimes called boards of trade or commercial associations—can be found in most of the world's industrialized countries.
In the United States, the first chamber of commerce was founded in 1768 in New York City. Its stated functions were "encouraging commerce, supporting industry, adjusting disputes relative to trade and navigation, and producing such laws and regulations as may be found necessary for the benefit of trade in general." Soon other chambers of commerce were formed—in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, and in other major seaboard cities. Arising in quick succession during the 19th century, chambers of commerce spread throughout the country and today number in the thousands.
At the local level, chambers of commerce strive to develop and publicize business opportunities in their community, as well as promote local schools and other community institutions. To their members, local chambers of commerce offer a range of programs and services, including information and advice on timely business matters, opportunities for networking, and general publications. Local chambers of commerce also provide their members with varied forums—task forces, committees, special events, and so forth—in which individual members can express their specific views and concerns, whether pertaining to the challenges facing small businesses or issues surrounding international commerce. Depending on their geographic setting, local chambers of commerce can be small or large in terms of their membership and scope of activities. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has 2,000 members, 80 percent of which are small businesses. Local chambers of commerce may or may not be affiliated with national ones.
At the national level, chambers of commerce function as a unified voice for their affiliates. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce consists of some 3 million companies, 3,000 state and local affiliates, 775 professional and trade organizations, and 85 international chambers of commerce promoting U.S. business interests abroad. Founded in April 1912 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in persuading the federal government to institute a national budget and in gaining passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The national chamber's primary goals are to
To carry out its largely laissez-faire agenda, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest national chamber in the world, maintains a staff of 1,000 and engages in a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from informing and counseling its members on key government developments to conducting policy studies and issuing reports and publications. It also provides a variety of assistance services to small businesses, such as coordinating group retirement benefits and providing trade assistance. In addition, the national chamber maintains an aggressive political lobby to advance members' interests, and is often quite outspoken on political issues, sometimes bringing lawsuits against government agencies to block policies it opposes.
At the international level is the International Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1920. This organization is a federation of business organizations and individuals, and serves as a powerful voice for business interests worldwide. It has considerable clout with the United Nations, which consults the International Chamber of Commerce on some policy matters. It also operates a prominent court of arbitration to settle international business disputes, utilizes teams of experts to address far-reaching problems, and issues a quarterly publication entitled World Trade. Headquartered in Paris, the International Chamber of Commerce functions as a vital mechanism for articulating global business concerns to world leaders, the news media, and the public at large.
Junior chambers of commerce, or Jaycees, also originated in the 1920s. These associations, evolving from the broader chamber of commerce movement, are composed of business people in their 20s and 30s. Prevalent throughout the United States and in many other countries as well, junior chambers of commerce devote much of their energies to community affairs.
In addition to chambers of commerce with geographical orientations, many special focus chambers also exist on the national and local levels, such as the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce.
National Black Chamber of Commerce. National Black Chamber of Commerce. Washington, 1999. Available from www.nationalbcc.org .
U.S. Chamber of Commerce. U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The World's Largest Business Federation. Washington, 1999. Available from www.uschamber.com .
U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. United States Hispanic Chamber of Comnmerce. Washington, 1999. Available from www.ushcc.com .
U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Welcome to USPAACC. Washington, 1999. Available from www.uspaacc.org .