1900 – 1910


The Rotary Seed is Planted

The founder of the organization to be known as Rotary International was Paul Percy Harris. He was born of humble beginnings on April 9, 1868 in Racine, Wisconsin.

Paul spent most of his childhood with his grandparents in Wallingford, Vermont and was educated at Vermont Military Academy, The University of Vermont, and eventually at prestigious Princeton University. He began law school in 1889 at the University of Iowa in Des Moines, where he earned his law degree in 1891 and was the keynote speaker of his graduating class. Thus began one of he most exciting and transforming periods in Paul Harris's life.

By 1896 Paul was settled in Chicago where he practiced law and was a member of the Chicago Association of Commerce. He was adversely affected by the commercial exploitation, social unrest and political corruption that characterized the business and political melting pot of Chicago in the early 1900's (and beyond).

In the autumn of 1900 Paul was invited to dinner by attorney Robert Frank. After the dinner they strolled through Rogers Park, a Chicago neighborhood, where they stopped and spoke with store and shop owners. The friendliness and trust of the owners and proprietors differed from the indifference and, at times, rudeness of the downtown community leaders. This was the oasis from which came the first seed of Paul's idea for a social and business organization where strangers could bond together in commerce and friendship. On that day in 1900, the first seed was planted for the birth of the organization that would be known as Rotary.


It All Begins

Chicago in the early 1900’s was a "maelstrom of commercial exploitation", political corruption and religious fundamentalism, all brought together (according to "A Century of Service—The Story of Rotary International") into one giant melting pot. It was a city of contrasts---conscience versus outright corruption.

By 1905, Paul Harris had developed his Chicago law practice. It provided him with a steady stream of clients and he occupied space in the same building as attorney Clarence Darrow.

The most significant date in the history of Rotary has to be February 23, 1905, acknowledged as the birth of modern day volunteer-ism. That morning, the Chicago newspapers led with headlines announcing the Chicago Carpenters and Bricklayers were threatening to strike unless their members were granted a half day off on Saturdays. That night Paul Harris and friend Silvester Schiele, a coal dealer, met for dinner at Madame Galli’s in Chicago. After dinner, they retired to the seventh floor in the Unity Building at 127 Dearborn Street where they discussed the idea of forming a club---a fellowship and business booster organization. At the meeting in the Unity Building were Hiram E. Shorey, a merchant tailor, and Gustavus H. Loehr, a mining engineer.

Paul shared with the other three men his feeling of emptiness as he felt he had no true friends in the city, only multiple acquaintances. He wanted friends he could trust in both personal and commercial dealings. Together the four proposed forming a club---different from any other---one described as ‘’a very simple plan of mutual cooperation and informal friendships,’’ with each member invited from a different profession or line of business.
It was at first limited to that one representative per profession. They would work together inspired by their professions. Paul would buy his suits from Hiram. Hiram, in turn, would purchase coal from Silvester; Gus would use Paul for his legal work and so on. They pledged to bring potential new members to the next meeting. The organization they were forming that night in 1905 would differ from all others and would in many ways serve as a
model for future Rotary clubs.


The Naming of Rotary

The third meeting of the newly formed club – soon to be named the Rotary Club – was held in Chicago at Charter Member Silvester Schiel’s coalyard
office with 15 members attending. It was clear that first on the agenda was naming the new club. Some members felt that the name should reflect a feeling of community. The first names proposed for the fledgling organization were: the "Windy City Roundup", "Chicago Fellowship Club", "The Lake Club", or simply "The Chicago Civic Club." The name "The Trade and Talk Club" also was suggested.

Although the suggestions for a name were bountiful, none seemed appropriate. When two in the group made proposals for the “Blue Boys” and “The Conspirators”, Paul Harris felt he should take control of the process. He brought a new name to the table. Since the charter members of the club had agreed to rotate meetings between member’s places of business with the leadership of each meeting also rotating, why not name the club – “The Rotation Club”. The members of the group thought the name too clumsy so Paul submitted a final choice, “The Rotary Club."

Dues were set at 0 cents allowing for club expenses to be paid from those 50-cent fines imposed on members who missed meetings or for other offenses. Members would have to re-qualify for membership each year by gaining a two-thirds vote of the club. The newly-named Rotary Club chose Paul Harris as their first president, although he declined and Silvester Schiele took on the position of Rotary’s first official leader. Thus The Rotary Club and, thankfully, not "The Conspirators Club" was off and running.


The Expansion of Rotary

Paul Harris could see by 1908 that the Rotary Club model was working well in Chicago. Membership was growing, a constitution and set of by-laws were in place, a successfully designed emblem was chosen for the club (initially a wagon wheel) and Rotary’s first community project was planned (a street side men’s public restroom).

Harris began to think that the Rotary model could work in other cities. Why not replicate Rotary in other communities? When Paul originally proposed the idea of expansion to members of the Chicago club there was much opposition. Many of the members could not see the benefits or gain of devoting the required time and resources to starting a club in New York or perhaps Jacksonville. He understood their position but still dreamed of expansion.

It was in June of 1908 when a friend of Paul’s, Manuel Muñoz, was sent on a business trip to San Francisco and before he left was approached by Paul with almost an offhand suggestion – "perhaps you could start a Rotary Club out there." This almost offhand suggestion changed forever the shape of the Rotary movement.

The Rotary club of San Francisco began at a banquet held November 12th, 1908 at the St. Francis Hotel. Shortly after that, the Tri-City Rotary Club was founded in Oakland. Thus by 1909 there were Rotary Clubs in Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland with many more to come. In August of 1910 the first national convention was held.


The 1910 Rotary National Convention

Those who attended the 1910 National Rotary Convention never forgot the experience. The convention was held in Chicago with the members of the Chicago club serving as hosts. Sixty Rotarians registered with an equal number of guests. Every club but two (and there were now 16 clubs nationally with 1,800 members) was allowed one delegate for each 50 members in their organization.

Paul Harris called the meeting to order in the Congress Hotel and they elected the convention officers. Harris announced, "Rotary is already a wonderful force, and no one can attempt to foretell its future growth. You have important work to do in establishing the fundamental laws for this organization." Subjects discussed at the convention included:

  • Social activities
  • Membership qualifications and growth
  • Dues
  • Business reciprocity between members
  • An emblem for the club
  • Population of cities eligible for a viable Rotary Club
  • The number of clubs a city could support

After the business meetings members went to dinner or swam at Wilson Avenue Beach. The next afternoon they attended a baseball game played between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Highlanders (to be the New York Yankees in 1913) at the new Comiskey Park. They toured downtown Chicago and ate at the famous Bismarck Beer Garden.

At the closing banquet, Chicago Rotarian Arthur Frederick Sheldon addressed the crowd and made a statement that resonated with the membership, "Man comes to see that the science of business is the science of service. He comes to see that he profits most when he serves his fellows best." In the end, delegates adopted a constitution and bylaws and formed the foundation that was then the National Association of Rotary Clubs of America.