It was Aug. 29, 1867, when a notice appeared in Richmond’s newspapers calling for local businessmen to attend a meeting about forming a chamber of commerce for the city.
According to the notice, the advantages of creating such an organization — then called the Board of Trade — were “too obvious to require enumeration.”
“We believe it is essential to the advancement of the commercial interests of the city, and hope that the movement now to be inaugurated may prove every way successful,” according to a notice in the Daily Dispatch newspaper.
The notice in the newspapers was signed by 28 men or businesses. “A call for a meeting tomorrow evening has received the signatures of a number of our most energetic and influential men, representing every branch of trade,” the newspaper reported.
At the time, the city was still struggling to recover from the Civil War. “Out of the ruins of that war came a couple of chambers of commerce” in the South, said Chris Mead, author of the 2014 book “The Magicians of Main Street,” a history of chambers of commerce in the United States.
“Others were also founded, even in the North, in that period,” said Mead, also senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, an organization representing 1,200 local, state, and regional chambers of commerce.
Chambers of commerce had been around for a lot longer than that, though. The first one in America, a state chamber of commerce, was formed in New York in 1768.
It was a “rainy Wednesday” on Oct. 9, 1867, when “a number of our most prominent mercantile citizens” met at the Tobacco Exchange to officially create a chamber in Richmond, according to a history of the organization compiled for its 100th anniversary in 1967 by Edmond H. Brill Jr., who managed the chamber’s convention and publicity bureau.
At that meeting, it was reported that the newly formed group “had 220 subscribers to the list, and that they could get as many as 400 in the short time,” according to the account in the Daily Dispatch.
David J. Burr, a 41-year-old lawyer, merchant and legislator, was elected the chamber’s first president. He served in that role until 1872.
It didn’t take long after the chamber was officially formed for members to make their voices heard on important issues of the time. Not surprisingly, since the chamber was created to promote the interests of commerce, the concern was about improvement programs on the James River and railroad freight costs.
At a February 1868 meeting of the board of directors of the organization, for instance, members spoke out against “freight discrimination” that they considered unfair to businesses in the city.
“Fighting unfair freight rates was something that chambers across the country tried to do,” Mead said.
From early on, the chamber served as a way for the business community to speak with a unified voice, he said.
“If you are just one person and you complain to the railroads that the rate is not fair, it won’t get you far, but if the chamber as a whole did so, it might get you farther,” Mead said.
Taxes were an important issue, too. Minutes from meetings in 1870 and 1871 show that the chamber tried, in vain, to get tobacco taxes reduced.
Chamber members were just as interested 150 years ago as they are today in recruiting new businesses and making sure the city had a sufficient workforce.
In the 1870s, the chamber campaigned against usury laws and advocated for the establishment of “a first class public park,” according to Brill’s history.
In 1879, chamber members expressed pleasure that the American Union Telegraph Co. planned to provide reliable telegraph service in the city.
Even tourism was a subject of interest in the early days. In 1884, then-chamber president Robert E. Blankenship spoke at the organization’s annual meeting of the need for a new hotel in the city.
“Thousands pass through the city yearly who would be glad to stop over if they could be assured of such accommodations as are offered in towns of half our population in Eastern States,” he said.
Like most other chambers of commerce, the Richmond chamber historically has leaned toward conservatism, Mead said. Unless being conservative was not good for business.
“Here is a progressive thing that the chamber did,” Mead said. In the early 1880s, “it defeated a proposal to go back to using gas lamps on the streets” instead of electricity.
The chamber branded the gas lamp proposal “a return to provincialism,” according to Brill’s history.
The Richmond chamber, and other chambers, are not always opposed to taxes, Mead noted. “If they propose a tax increase, it is usually for something specific,” he said. “They are usually not crazy about funding an increase for general budgets.”
The chamber had moved its offices several times during its first 26 years. In 1893, it dedicated a new office building it had constructed at a cost of $211,000 at the southwest corner of Ninth and Main streets — about a block from its current offices on the 17th floor of the SunTrust Center at 919 E. Main St.
Not everything the chamber does is directly related to commerce.
After the death of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1889, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to erect a monument for him, and led an effort to have his remains moved from New Orleans to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. His remains were re-interred there in 1893.
In the early 20th century, the chamber started working on business recruitment, following other chambers such as Atlanta in conducting national campaigns to attract new investments.
“If you knew everything the chamber had done over the years and the impact of that, and somehow you could take it all away, you would see a completely different Richmond,” Mead said. “That is true in many communities. It does not mean the chamber is all-powerful, but a lot of times chambers will start things or take an idea and strengthen it, providing the social capital needed for it to work.”