First American Service Organization Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1905, Paul Harris shared his idea for the first American service organization, the Rotary Club, with Silvester Schiele, Gus Loehr, and Hiram Shorey. Rotary’s genesis occurred within the context of the Progressive Era, which was a period of massive social, economic, and political reforms.

Summary of Event

The Rotary Club, the first American service organization, began as a progressive reform campaign aimed at civic improvement. In the early 1900’s, massive political, economic, and social reforms were taking place, and for this reason historians often classified this phase in American history as the Progressive Era. Progressive movement Like other reformers of the period, the founding Rotarians—Paul Harris, Silvester Schiele, Gus Loehr, and Hiram Shorey—wanted to address social problems and hoped to revitalize American civic life. Rotary Club Service organizations Humanitarianism;service organizations [kw]First American Service Organization Is Founded (Feb. 23, 1905) [kw]American Service Organization Is Founded, First (Feb. 23, 1905) [kw]Service Organization Is Founded, First American (Feb. 23, 1905) Rotary Club Service organizations Humanitarianism;service organizations [g]United States;Feb. 23, 1905: First American Service Organization Is Founded[01260] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 23, 1905: First American Service Organization Is Founded[01260] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 23, 1905: First American Service Organization Is Founded[01260] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Feb. 23, 1905: First American Service Organization Is Founded[01260] Harris, Paul Schiele, Silvester Loehr, Gus Shorey, Hiram

The Progressive Era was associated with numerous reform efforts that drew popular figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, who were interested in redressing social or economic problems, as well as those interested in bettering conditions for the disenfranchised and underprivileged. They were responding to developments in corporate and consumer culture in an attempt to provide a moral foundation for community members, embrace service projects, advocate character development, and promote the benefits of a traditional Christian value system. The Progressive Era was also associated with efforts to revitalize democracy.

In the early twentieth century, Chicago seemed to be a hub of such social reform efforts. Famous activists Jane Addams and John Dewey both lived in the city during this period, and it was within this context that Paul Harris, an attorney, and three other Chicago businessmen—Gus Loehr, a mining engineer, Hiram Shorey, a merchant tailor, and Silvester Schiele, a coal dealer—started a new kind of service organization. Rotary’s philosophy emphasized equality among Rotary members and the need to participate in the civic arena. Through the Rotary Club, members from diverse professions could come together for fellowship and to collaborate on community-oriented projects. The group was dedicated to the ideal of “service above self,” and it met for the first time on February 23, 1905, in Loehr’s office in room 711 in the Unity Building on Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago. Harris envisioned a group that would promote the congenial, small-town atmosphere he had enjoyed as a youth in the small New England town of Wallingford, Vermont, where neighbors had close relationships and there was a rich heritage of civic participation. He suggested that the club include professionals from diverse sectors of the business community and that meetings take place at members’ offices on a rotating basis. This practice inspired the name “Rotary.”

The club fostered a kind of internal support network that effectively became a professional mentoring program. Interest in the welfare of fellow Rotarians was the foundation of Rotary’s service-oriented mission, and concern for other club members easily extended to those in the local community, nation, and world. This global perspective ultimately came to be represented in the Rotary Club’s emblem, the wheel. Although the significance of the wheel is not officially defined by the Rotary Club, the Rotary’s Handbook, Adventure in Service, suggests that the wheel represents the modern industrial world, given that the wheel formed the backbone of the mechanized work of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the wheel represents a circle of friendship and the interconnectedness, equality, and unity among club members around the globe.

In Rotary’s early days, members realized that a club focused solely on members’ mutual interests would not hold busy professionals’ attention for long. Consequently, the organization’s focus expanded to community-service projects: Helping those in need provided a compelling incentive for club participation. In 1907, the Rotary completed its first service project: The group gave a horse to a poor preacher. The second service project also occurred in 1907, when the Chicago Rotary constructed the first public restrooms in Chicago’s City Hall. Other Rotary Clubs quickly developed: By 1908, the second Rotary Club had formed in San Francisco, and in 1909, another club began in Oakland, California. By the summer of 1910, sixteen clubs had formed, and the first Rotary Convention met in Chicago, in August of 1910. Nearly fifteen hundred members attended.

Rotary Clubs also began developing outside the United States. In 1910, Rotary had reached Canada, and by 1911 the Rotary had organizations in Great Britain and Ireland. As a result, in 1912 the organization changed its name to the International Association of Rotary Clubs. By 1921, Rotary had one thousand clubs on six continents, and that same year Rotary held its first international convention in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the organization’s name was simplified to Rotary International. Gradually, Rotary’s objectives were distilled to the Four Avenues of Service: club, vocational, community, and international. Rotary’s motto originated from a phrase a Rotarian coined at the 1910 Rotary convention: “Service above self—he profits most who serves best.” In 1911, at the second Rotary convention, Rank Collins, president of the Minneapolis Rotary, used the phrase “Service, not self,” which also became a popular motto. In addition to the Four Avenues of Service, Rotary International embraced a code of ethics called the Four-Way Test, Four-Way Test (Rotary Club)[Four Way Test (Rotary Club)] which was developed by Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor Taylor, Herbert J. in 1923. The test was designed to help members make ethical decisions about club policies and business practices. The Rotary Club officially adopted the Four-Way Test in 1943.

When Rotary founder Paul Harris died in 1947, Rotarians contributed approximately $2 million in his memory to the Rotary Foundation. This fund helped launch the Rotary Foundation’s graduate fellowship program, now the Ambassadorial Scholarship fund. Harris was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois, next to his fellow Rotarian and friend, Silvester Schiele.


Rotary International continued to thrive. In the early twenty-first century it had more than thirty-two thousand clubs in 168 countries, and its membership included approximately 1.2 million men and women. Rotary International has collaborated with other humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. Rotary’s service projects have included humanitarian programs addressing problems of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease, particularly the eradication of polio. By the time Rotary celebrated its centennial in 2005, the club’s Polio Plus program had contributed approximately $500 million to eradicating the disease. Rotary Club Service organizations Humanitarianism;service organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charles, Jeffrey A. Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Describes the rise of the Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs from 1900 to 1940. Emphasizes social and cultural contexts and the complex relationship between the business and service organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Paul. The Founder of Rotary. Chicago: Rotary International, 1928. Records Harris’s reflections on Rotary’s development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCleary, Elliot, ed. The World of Rotary. Chicago: Rotary International, 1975. Highlights international service activities and includes pictorial history of Rotary projects and events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rotary International. Adventure in Service. 14th ed. Chicago: Author, 1965. Provides information on Rotarian history as well as on the club’s organization and mission.

Formation of the Plunket Society

Baden-Powell Establishes the Boy Scouts

Carnegie Establishes the Endowment for International Peace

Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded

Formation of the American Friends Service Committee

Formation of the American Legion

Ford Foundation Is Established

Categories: History