A chamber of commerce is a voluntary association whose membership is comprised of companies, civic leaders, and individual business people. Its members seek to promote the interests of business, typically in a broad-based way. Chambers of commerce exist on municipal, state, regional, national, and even international levels. 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 created in 1768 in New York City. Its stated objectives encompassed "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 formed in other major cities. Arising in quick succession during the 19th century, chambers of commerce spread throughout the land and today number in the thousands.
At the local level, chambers of commerce strive to develop and publicize business opportunities in their communities, as well as work for the betterment of local schools and other community institutions. Local chambers of commerce offer a range of programs and services to their members, including information and advice on timely business matters, opportunities for networking, and a variety of publications. Local chambers of commerce also provide their members with numerous forums—task forces, committees, special events, and so on—in which to express their specific views and concerns, whether pertaining to the challenges facing small businesses or to the issues surrounding international commerce. Depending on their geographic settings, local chambers of commerce can be small or large in terms of their membership and scope of activities.
At the national level, chambers of commerce function as a unified voice for their affiliates. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, counts individual companies, affiliate chambers of commerce, and trade and professional associations among its members. Through them, it represents more than three million business organizations and individuals. Founded as a national federation in 1912 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the national chamber was instrumental in persuading the federal government to institute a national budget and in gaining passage of the Federal Reserve Act. Its chief aims are to: stop perceived over regulation; push down business taxes; improve labor relations; increase production, develop new markets; provide more jobs; raise educational levels; build better cities; and keep organized business strong and increasingly effective.
To carry out its mission, the national chamber maintains a large staff that 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, bulletins, booklets, and periodicals. In addition, the national chamber maintains a vigorous stance in making its policies and members' viewpoints known to federal agency personnel, members of Congress, and other public officials. Augmenting the national chamber are four regional offices and 50 foreign-based American chambers of commerce.
At the global level is the International Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1920. This organization constitutes an international federation of business organizations and individuals and as such serves as a powerful voice for business interests worldwide. It holds the highest-ranking status afforded to organizations the United Nations calls on in a consultative capacity. It also operates a prominent court of arbitration to settle international business disputes; utilizes teams of experts to formulate solutions to problems in such areas as communications, law, and financial relations; 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 opinion leaders and the public at large.
Junior chambers of commerce, known as the Jaycees, also originated in the 1920s. These associations, evolving from the larger chamber of commerce movement, are composed of young businesspeople in their twenties and thirties. Prevalent throughout the United States and in many other countries as well, junior chambers of commerce principally devote their energies to projects of community improvement.