The Magicians of Main Street America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768 – 1945

A new book, the first-ever full-length history of chambers of commerce in the United States, describes how voluntary groups of business people, even before the American Revolution, changed not only their local economies but often their society.  The Magicians of Main Street indicates, in considerable detail, how chambers of commerce affected the nation’s finance and currency, public health, transportation, public works, local government, education, and even cultural life.  The traces of these organizations’ activities remain with us in countless ways, from Washington’s Cherry Blossom Festival to New York City’s subway to Chicago’s Board of Trade to the gaming industry of Las Vegas and the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The author, Chris Mead, argues that these chambers have grown out of the natural tendency of Americans to form associations.  As the political commentator Michael Barone has pointed out:

“Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America expressed wonderment at the proliferation of voluntary associations in the United States.  Among them were chambers of commerce, the first of which was founded in New York in 1768, before the American Revolution.  In The Magicians of Main Street, Chris Mead tells how chambers of commerce across the nation shaped America from colonial times to the end of World War II.  This is a story, previously untold, essential to understanding how America became what it is.”

Why has there been no such book up to now?  Mead thinks people have overlooked chambers of commerce in favor primarily of individuals with specific legal powers or well-known talents or obvious achievements.  The idea that a group of people can change the world or a community is one that our individualistic society sometimes passes over.  He devotes a full appendix to 13 reasons
that the chamber of commerce story has been missed by most historians, journalists, and the
general public.

In 2012, when the book was far from finished, a Wall Street Journal reporter learned about the project and put Mead and the book on the cover of the newspaper, with an article entitled, “Don’t Yawn:  Chambers of Commerce are Really Quite a Kick.”  And in fact, they are.  Historian Kevin Starr describes the book:

“Long before the enfranchisement of municipal governments, chambers of commerce or their equivalents ran the show.  In many ways, they still do.  In this never-a-dull-moment contribution to the re-emergent field of American business history, Chris Mead presents an action-packed narrative of high-mindedness, enlightened self-interest, and, now and then, chicanery.”

Among the most colorful business organizations in the nation’s history were those of Chicago:  the Chicago Board of Trade (originally an ordinary chamber of commerce that invented modern agricultural product trading and morphed into the world’s leading commodities exchange), the Commercial Club, and the Capone-hunting Chicago Association of Commerce.  Yet there were other interesting chamber activities across the land.  Mead traces their examples – good and bad -- across the 50 states and weaves them into a narrative that becomes, almost imperceptibly at first for the reader, an alternative history of the United States.  To a far greater extent than anyone realized before the publication of this book, our country has been shaped by pickup teams of business people who paid their dues and built up their communities.

The book is available from John Cruger Press via Amazon at the hard-copy price of $29.95.  It is 517 pages long including footnotes and bibliography.


Chris Mead is senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, an organization representing 1,200 local, state, and regional chambers of commerce.  He also is executive director of the foundation affiliated with ACCE, Community Growth Educational Foundation (CGEF).  His previous experience includes economic development and other consulting, publishing newsletters on international trade, and serving as vice president of the Council for Urban Economic Development (now the International Economic Development Council).

Chris holds an MBA degree from Stanford University and a BA degree in English from Oberlin College. Chris is married to Laura Lewis Mead and has two daughters and a son.  They live in Oakton, Va.

excerpt Magicians of Main Street Excerpt: 
The First Few Pages of the Introduction

The curious thing about the United States, as Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in Democracy in America, is that this land of the free is swirling with groups.  As molecules bump against each other faster as they are melted, so the people of the melting pot moved faster under freedom, reconstituting themselves with rapidity and ingenuity to solve the problems of the new land.  Peoples formerly bound by rules of custom and monarchy or aristocracy found new liberties as immigrants and discovered new ways to interact with others.  The land of the individual quietly became, also, the land of the group.  And one of those kinds of groups was the chamber of commerce – a relatively new idea that the Americans refashioned according to their needs and interests.  These American chambers would have a lasting impact on their country.

Many chamber dues payers were far from wealthy, but it’s certainly fair to say that the average chamber member, and even more so the average chamber board member, was better off than the average citizen in the periods examined here.  Chambers of commerce hence sometimes operated as an aristocracy lite, a restraining, Senate-like, calming influence on the body politic.  They exercised a healthy skepticism of government programs most of the time, unless their members thought those programs were likely to have a material impact on local economic prospects.

Still, to focus only on the wealth of some chamber members, or on their general (and far from monolithic) tendency toward political conservatism, or on their seeming fixation on detailed aspects of civic and commercial life, is to miss the wider picture of what these groups did.  Nathaniel Hawthorne grasped the strange contradiction of chambers of commerce – the inherent conservatism of business juxtaposed against the fantastic plans these people occasionally realized.  “It is dangerous to listen to dreamers such as these,” he wrote. (1)  Chambers, it turned out, could unite clusters of enterprises or will cities out of the pine needles and crickets.  Once they came to consensus on a project, it had a good chance of happening.  These groups of doers, perhaps not surprisingly, could get a lot done.

Chambers of commerce often functioned as the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs of civic life.  If a camel is a horse created by a committee, then these business organizations generated more than their share of dromedaries.  Their sandy footprints are everywhere, from the Golden Gate Bridge and across the Father of Waters to the sea bottom at Hell Gate in New York’s harbor.  Your city council, or your city itself, may derive from a group of men who once sat around a table singing or passing a hat to collect pledges.

Why should this essentially be the first full-length history of American chambers of commerce?  Appendix A points to 13 different explanations of why we forget these organizations.  There are many reasons.  We find individuals more interesting than groups, high ideals more uplifting than idealism mixed with other motives, clear and suddenly exercised power more exciting than the drip, drip, drip of influence exercised over years or decades, foreign wars more interesting than peace on the home front, death more interesting than taxes.  We have blind spots of historical understanding.  We can’t see the car approaching us on the right.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Following chambers through American history is like watching Forrest Gump, only there’s a forest of Gumps.  Chambers had a hand, sometimes an invisible one, in many great and small enterprises.  From humble beginnings just before the American Revolution, they gradually put together a resume of achievements that few individuals – perhaps just four or five great Presidents – could match in total, cumulative impact on U.S. society.

Chamber members took action on things they were excited about, or afraid of, or desperate to acquire.  These were all, of course, simply human beings.  The man in the gray flannel suit, or in the three-cornered hat, or in the high starched collar, or the woman in pumps, had passions just as abiding as those of the stevedore and the sharecropper.  And those passions found expression in the national life with traces easily discernible today.

Two high-profile chambers – the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – get plenty of attention in this narrative, as they did in many of the periods covered here.  Never, however, did either chamber call all or even most of the shots for the business organizations in the country.  The bewildering variety and occasional cussedness of the other chambers makes them interesting to learn about and often instructive.  Together, those thousands of other American chambers did more than any single chamber has, probably anywhere.

Following more than a million chamber members over nearly 200 years, in what were eventually about 3,000 chambers of commerce in the years up through World War II, is a demanding task.  Choosing a few hundred illustrative examples out of many thousands is more of an art than a science, and deciding which stories to amplify is even more a judgment call.  The process is necessarily imperfect, much like watching a river in near darkness.  But by glimpsing the glints of moonlight on this quiet and sometimes turbulent chamber water, we can get a sense of its power and direction
and force.

The book opens with a very brief look at the beginning of trade and commercial organizations in other parts of the world, and then in the United States.  The much longer examination of the American chambers is the heart of the book, starting in some detail just before the Revolutionary War and ending at the year 1945.  In the years from George III to Roosevelt II we will learn much that can help us understand not only chambers’ and our past, but our present and future as well.  A brief epilogue will take us, at Jet Age speed, from 1945 to the present day.

The North American story begins quietly, slowly, as a few windswept chambers of commerce grapple with the Wild East maelstrom of trade and conflict on the Atlantic.  Somehow the plucky and cantankerous organizations survive, or at least give birth to descendants, and begin a steady march across a continent that doesn’t belong to them.  Almost by osmosis, and usually by accident, and perhaps at first unnoticed by the reader, they begin creating many of the institutions and capacities that we now take for granted in modern life.

By the end of World War I, they have changed the nation irrevocably, so much so that their hand often is hidden by their own creations as they continue to quietly remake their communities.  They grapple with a Depression for which the cure is, not Prozac, but the response to a talented, charismatic mass murderer who looks strangely like Charlie Chaplin.  These “weak” institutions soldier on, some declining, some not, but most of them able to outlive any tyrant, from Al Capone to Adolf Hitler.

These American chambers appear weak because they depend on voluntary engagement.  And it is that kind of weakness that is, to a large extent, the strength of their country.  Autocrats, beware of nations of shopkeepers – and also of nations full of shopkeepers’ and businesses’ organizations.

The things these chambers did or helped accomplish were wide-ranging and, when seen together, profound.  One chamber started the Farm Bureau; another streamlined how charitable donations were handled, influencing the creation of Community Chests and the United Way; another brought the first movie producer to southern California; still another was the moving force behind the largest concrete structure in the world; while one more first brought up the proposal for a flexible monetary system that became the Federal Reserve Bank.  A beach chamber started the Miss America Pageant; a mountain chamber sponsored the first music folklore festival.

Then there was the chamber responsible for 20,000 deaths in the Mississippi Valley, and the “real Rhett Butler,” who brought in so many European arms to the Confederacy that many thousands of Yankee soldiers would never make it back home.  And there was the “Lion of the Vigilantes,” a business leader who imposed order while elected officials made an art of ballot-box stuffing and letting arsonists burn down much of their city to steal from the ashes.  And these of course are simply a few samplings of the organizations’ actions.  These chambers had merchants who knew how to make change.


(1) Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse (New York:  George P. Putnam, 1851), 163-4.

reviews GENERAL

 “Long before the enfranchisement of municipal governments, chambers of commerce or their equivalents ran the show. In many ways, they still do. In this never-a-dull-moment contribution to the re-emergent field of American business history, Chris Mead presents an action-packed narrative of high-mindedness, enlightened self-interest, and, now and then, chicanery.”
—Kevin Starr, University of Southern California

“Is war good for business? Many people seem to believe this, with a glaring exception: businesspeople. The consistent opposition of chambers of commerce to military adventures is just one of the fascinating findings of this history of a vital but little-appreciated American institution.”
—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

“Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America expressed wonderment at the proliferation of voluntary associations in the United States. Among them were chambers of commerce, the first of which was founded in New York in 1768, before the American Revolution. In The Magicians of Main Street, Chris Mead tells how chambers of commerce across the nation shaped America from colonial times to the end of World War II. This is a story, previously untold, essential to understanding how America became what it is.” —Michael Barone, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; Senior Political Analyst, Washington Examiner; co-author, The Almanac of American Politics

“This book is a major contribution for understanding local chambers of commerce on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only the first in-depth treatment of U.S. chambers from 1768 to the modern era, it is also a thorough coverage of many engaging events and initiatives ranging from the Miss America Pageant to influences on the outcome of Presidential elections. Academics, practitioners and members of chambers, not to mention the public, owe Chris Mead an immense debt for this original work.”
—Robert J. Bennett, Professor of Geography, Cambridge University

“This history of the United States as seen through the lens of the chambers of commerce across time and across the country is an impressive accomplishment, admirably written and referenced.  It makes clear that while the chambers often engaged in local boosting, they played a much more significant role in American economic development, from defending local interests to fighting for civic improvements.” —Donald A. Ritchie, author of The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction

“Chris Mead’s engaging narrative reveals the pivotal role chambers have played in shaping some of our most pivotal historical events. Through a series of fascinating untold stories that are sure to surprise you, Chris shines a light on the chambers’ diverse role in shaping America’s business development - from supporting the laying of the first transatlantic cable, to providing funding for Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight, to inventing modern commodities trading. He connects this fascinating history to the chambers’ critical role in shaping our nation’s business success today. Their advocacy on behalf of the millions of small business owners that power our economy is the lasting legacy of America’s chambers of commerce.” —Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact and author of Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins in a Socially Connected World

“Chris Mead’s Magicians of Main Street reads like a secret history of American commerce. It takes an institution rarely studied and chronicles its critical role in the many of the boldest innovations of the past couple of centuries. Leavened by stories of failure and foolishness as well, Mead gives the chambers the kind of historical treatment they rarely get from pundits, but is much deserved.”
—Joel Kotkin, Fellow in Urban Studies, Chapman University; Author,
The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050

“This lively account of the unduly untold story of American chambers of commerce fills a considerable gap--not only in American business history, but in American history itself, which as Chris Mead amply demonstrates was significantly inflected by their activities. Beginning in 1768 with the New York Chamber of Commerce, thousands of like groups nationwide collectively fostered some of the country’s signal achievements, even as their activities both inform and reflect the successive concerns of American economic, political, and social history.” —Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Princeton University; Editor and co-author, Picturing Power - Portraiture and Its Uses in the  New York Chamber of Commerce


“Chris Mead has captured the heartbeat of America ....the vital and significant role that chambers of commerce have played in our nation’s history.  He writes with clarity that ‘a chamber of volunteers’ committed to community and country can lead, transform, and strengthen our Republic.”
—Rob Wonderling, President and CEO, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

“Chris Mead illustrates how chambers have built more than just strong businesses—they have built strong communities. He captures the extensive work of chambers, from their European roots and their American founding in the pre-Revolutionary War colonies, to their impact through two World Wars. The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce is an important reflection on the role chambers have served developing prosperous nations and the cities and states within them.”
—Kelly Brough, President and CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce

“An amazing body of work, Chris Mead’s Magicians of Main Street offers – for the first time – a compendium of the pivotal roles chambers have played in building American communities and, thereby, the nation itself.  For those of us who are chamber of commerce practitioners, this exhaustively researched book serves as a cornerstone in the foundation on which we have built our professional lives and provides a valuable lens through which we can view the history and development of our communities.”
—David Adkisson, President and CEO, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce

“Chris Mead’s Magicians of Main Street provides incredible insights and a firsthand look into initiatives chambers of commerce have engaged in throughout history.  This walk through the ages provides foundational knowledge of who we are as chambers, the critical roles served, and the importance of this great industry. It further provides a compass for the path that chambers can and must take moving forward continuing the tradition of service with excellence, shaping our communities, and leaving a legacy for generations to come.”
—Aaron Cox, CEO, Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives

“A fantastic uncovering of the organization that makes things happen in communities across the United States. You have to read it to find the ‘magic’ that chambers of commerce have unveiled in their cities and towns. This is the first time that this collective wealth of knowledge and influence has been captured. Kudos to author Chris Mead for highlighting the magic many think just appears before their eyes (or just happens)!”
—Betty Nokes, President and CEO, Bellevue, Wash., Chamber of Commerce

“Over the course of history, thousands of American business owners have paid the tuition to learn how to help their enterprises and their communities prosper. Magicians encapsulates it all.”
—Douglas Peters, President and CEO, Fayetteville, N.C., Chamber of Commerce

“Silicon Valley is the mecca for innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurism.  But long before the first silicon chip was ever invented, chambers of commerce through their community and business activism were laying the foundation that would transform the area into a thriving business region.  The Magicians of Main Street captures the spirit of Silicon Valley and the role chambers have played in shaping our valley and our country.”
—Oscar Garcia, President and CEO, Mountain View, Calif., Chamber of Commerce

The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce is a recommended read for not just those in the chamber industry but anyone who is fascinated with how history shapes the future.  Chris Mead’s book is a compelling narrative that combines our country’s history with the formation of chambers from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His book showcases how chambers of commerce have helped transform communities by advocating and taking action in the areas from education, health care, economic development, leadership development, transportation infrastructure, and even civil rights.” —Kelly Hall, President and CEO, The Longview, Texas, Chamber of Commerce


For other book orders, please visit The Magicians of Main Street now live on

To request an interview with Mead, a speaking engagement,
or five or more copies of the book, please contact him at
(703) 998-3545 or


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Copyright © 2014 by Chris Mead. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed
in any printed or electronic form without permission.

ISBN: 978-0-9903033-0-5

Printed in the United States of America.

Published by John Cruger Press

Oakton, Virginia