I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago. … Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it. –Paul Harris

By Henry and Roger Childs

The humble origins of the service club

There are now more than 1.4 million Rotarians in 46,000 clubs world-wide. This massive service organization had humble beginnings in Chicago back in 1905. A 35 year old lawyer, Paul Harris, saw the need for high ethical standards in the operation of businesses and other activities, and wondered if an organization should be established based on the principles of friendship, fellowship and cooperation.

On 23 February 23 he discussed the matter in his office with a mining engineer, a tailor and a coal dealer to set up a club. And so Rotary was born.

Early days

The emphasis in the early meetings was fun, friendship and fellowship. The idea of men getting together and corporate collegiality spread and clubs developed in many east coast cities. At this stage in the 1900s the concepts of outreach and community service was not envisaged and in fact developed unobtrusively.

The Chicago clubmen heard of a young doctor who had lost his horse and so they “passed the hat round” and bought him a new one. However it was not until 1907 that the first organized community project by Rotary was undertaken. At the cost of $20,000 a rest room was constructed at Chicago’s City Hall. It was a popular move and a local paper declared The Rotary Club of Chicago has now shown a reason for its existence. The concept of a “service club” had become a reality.

The organization spreads

In 1908 clubs started up on the west coast with San Francisco and Oakland forming Rotary groups and it was the East Bay city that first held weekly meetings. At the first Rotary Convention, held in Chicago in 1910, sixteen clubs were represented.  Frank Harris became the inaugural president. 

This gathering set out the ideals and aims of the movement, and in subsequent years the principles “Service above self” and “He profits most who serves best” were adopted, as well as the emblem of the wagon wheel. 

Rotary became international when clubs were formed in 1910 in Winnipeg and in Dublin, London and Belfast during 1911. A decade later New York set up the 1000th Rotary organization.

By 1925 Rotary clubs could be found across the globe – in Europe, South America, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Twenty year after the original Chicago meeting there were over 100,000 clubs in 29 nations. 

A common practice over the years has been for members travelling overseas, to visit other clubs and exchange club banners. 

The changing basis of membership

Although it became well known for its projects in the community, for over 80 years Rotary had the reputation of being an “old boys club”. Women were relegated to being part of the “inner wheel” and attempts to give them full Rotarian status failed until a 1987 US Supreme Court decision ruled that the organization could not exclude women. The first women members were in Marin County California and this opened the floodgates.

Today the old system of members having occupational categories – just one bank manager and one minister of religion – has gone and anyone can be invited to join. Democracy and equality have come to Rotary International.

The website of the Waikanae Rotary Club.

Footnote: My late father Henry was a long-time Rotarian, notably in Napier. He was awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship for his service in the Hawke’s Bay. He subsequently wrote the history of the Napier Club: Sixty Years of Service. Some of the material in this article is taken from Chapter One of his book.