The New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1768 by twenty New York City merchants, was one of the first commercial organizations of its kind in the country. Formed around the premise of serving the needs of the local business community, the Chamber eventually became one of the industry's strongest advocates. Over the years, its activities attracted the participation of a number of New York's most renowned business leaders, including former New York City Mayor and the Chamber's first president, John Cruger, Samuel F.B. Morse, John Jacob Astor, Peter Cooper, J. Pierpont Morgan, and multiple members of the Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Murray families; notable figures such as Thomas Edison, Andrew Mellon, and Herbert Hoover were elected to honorary membership. The Chamber aimed to unify the voice of commercial industry in New York, allowing a respected forum for dialogue among its members which would often result in an amalgamated effort towards action and resolution. The prominence and power of its members garnered distinction for the organization, placing the Chamber in a unique position to command the attention of government bodies both locally and nationally. Collectively, the organization was able to agitate for legislation that would provide a favorable climate for the growth of business in New York City and State, in turn encouraging the development of a complex urban environment in which commercial industry could thrive.
The Chamber's founding members first met on April 5, 1768 at Bolton and Sigel's Tavern, now known as Fraunces Tavern, to form a mercantile union that would defend and promote their collective interests. Organized under the name the New York Chamber of Commerce, the society moved its home base to the Royal Exchange in 1770, and was granted a royal charter from King George III incorporating it as “the Corporation of the Chamber of Commerce in the City of New York in America."
At the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the membership was divided into Loyalist and Patriot factions. Patriot members, including John Cruger, the first President of the Chamber, left New York City after the British invasion of 1776 while their Loyalist counterparts continued to hold meetings and transact business in the City. After the British evacuation in 1783, the Chamber's returning Patriot members quickly established control over the organization and relocated to the Merchants' Coffee House building. The Chamber was issued a new charter in 1784 reincorporating it as "the Corporation of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York." In 1793, the Chamber again relocated; this time to the Tontine Association across the street from the Merchants' Coffee House. Member participation began dropping steadily after the turn of the century, and by 1806 meetings were suspended due to lack of attendance.
In 1817, Chamber President Cornelius Ray called for resumption of the organization's business. New officers were elected and the membership base was increased by thirty-six during the first meeting. This marked the beginning of a new era for the organization. As of 1827, the Chamber had claimed the Merchants Exchange Building as its headquarters; however, the Great Fire of New York in 1835 forced members to relocate once more, this time to the Merchants Bank on Wall Street. Though many of the Chamber's prized historical objects and documents were saved from the fire, including member portraits, minute books, and the Chamber's official seal, the original charter is believed to have perished.
By 1849, membership had surpassed the two hundred mark, and the administration became increasingly consumed by management concerns. Elected officers authorized the hiring of an official clerk and librarian to assist the elected Secretary in overseeing day-to-day functions. The administrative staff was vital to the operation of the Chamber, answering outside inquiries on the organization's work and fielding appeals for guidance and counsel from commercial organizations across the country, all the while facilitating dialogue among the Chamber's constituency and countless committees. The outreach efforts of the administration, in addition to the prestigious projects the organization was involved in, quickly established the Chamber as a model for other chambers of commerce, both domestically and abroad.
As its membership increased in size and prestige during the 1800s, the Chamber's power grew accordingly and the organization proved to be instrumental in the realization of several initiatives integral to the development of both New York City and State. In the interest of serving regional commerce, the Chamber heavily promoted the construction of the Erie Canal in the early 1800s and the establishment of the first transatlantic cable in 1858. The Chamber became progressively more involved in trade and commercial concerns at the national and international levels, and began releasing annual reports in the mid-1800s which outlined the condition of mercantile affairs and noted important changes relative to trade in the national business market. Perhaps one of its most recognized contributions to the business industry was its role in arbitrating commercial disputes among regional merchants. The Chamber's creation of a Court of Arbitration, a body recognized by the State to oversee commercial disputes, and its own Committee on Arbitration, whose records and purpose often overlap with the Court's, are both indications of the Chamber's commitment to settling mercantile disagreements and furthering its goal of providing merchants with an agreeable environment in which to conduct business.
The Chamber also lent its support to major public works within New York City--the expansion of the City's water and waste management system, construction of a rapid transit system, and quality commercial education for area businessmen were all projects championed by the Chamber. The defense and management of New York ports and harbors were also of concern; the eruption of the Civil War in the United States prompted the Chamber to gather funds and successfully petition both the Executive and Legislative branches of the United States, the New York State Legislature, and the New York City Council for an allocation of money for the defense of the New York Harbor. In addition to these large scale ventures, the organization was involved in numerous smaller projects over the years, including construction of a lighthouse in Martinique, overseeing the Nautical School of the Port of New York, and developing measures to protect the City's population during cholera outbreaks in the 1890s.
Many of these accomplishments can be attributed to the work of the Chamber's standing committees which began to appear in great numbers by the second half of the 19th century. Committees were an essential component of the organization; they allowed members to focus on a broad range of issues relevant to commercial industry in the New York region and nationwide. Standing committees often concentrated on a general sector of commerce such as finance, conservation, public service, or taxation laws, while ad hoc special and sub-committees focused on these topics in finer detail. The proliferation of committees at various points in the Chamber's history can be directly linked to contemporary affairs; certainly, the occurrence of particular events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, such as debates on the National Budget, natural disasters, or urban entertainments, can often be traced by the existence of corresponding Chamber committees.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Chamber's administration grew again as it faced a progressively more complex business environment; the administration now included the elected positions of Executive Vice President, Assistant Secretary, and Assistant Treasurer. The result of the Chamber's growing influence and prosperity was the 1902 completion of construction of the Chamber of Commerce building at 65 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan. Illustrating the Chamber's importance at the national level, both President Theodore Roosevelt and former President Grover Cleveland spoke at the building's dedication. The top floor of the new building, the Grand Hall, was lined with the Chamber's collection of over 200 member portraits and it was here that most business was transacted, including regularly occurring member meetings. The Chamber's wealth and prestige continued to swell exponentially, and in honor of the Chamber's significant projects and influential membership, increasingly opulent annual banquets were held. Invitations were delivered by messenger and hand engraved by Tiffany and Company, whose founder was also a member.
Following this period of economic and civic prosperity leading up to the 1920s, the Chamber began a gentle descent, slowly losing members and influence. The Chamber began considering the possibility of merging with other New York City commercial organizations as early as the 1940s. An agreement was reached in 1973 between the Chamber and the Commerce and Industry Association, formerly the Merchants' Association, to merge the two parties into one organization: The New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry. However, this new incarnation of the Chamber did little to alleviate the organization's declining revenue and dwindling authority. In 1979 the Chamber left its headquarters at 65 Liberty Street and moved in with the New York City Partnership, an affiliate organization founded by Chamber member, David Rockefeller. In 2002 the two organizations formally merged to form the Partnership for New York City and the Chamber ceased to exist.