U.S. Department of Commerce Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Probably no office of the United States government relates more directly to the American business community than does the Department of Commerce, which arranges for loans to businesses, monitors business opportunities both domestic and international, takes positive steps to control unemployment, and offers guidance to the nation’s workforce and to the businesses that employ that workforce, as well as to Congress.

The United States experienced unprecedented growth in industry during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many influential industrialists felt that they needed a stronger tie to the federal government than they had at that time, and they especially favored the creation of a department that would represent them and their interests formally in the president’s cabinet.Commerce, U.S. Department of

On February 14, 1903, during the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the United States Congress voted to establish the Department of Commerce and Labor, a designation that survived for just over a decade. On March 14, 1913, Commerce and Labor were divided into two separate, cabinet-level entities, each headed by a secretary. By this time, with industrialism continuing to grow rapidly in the United States, it was clear that the regulation of this growth was too great for one department to handle efficiently. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed William C. Redfield the first secretary of commerce under the department’s new configuration.

Congress placed on the new secretary of commerce the task of monitoring trade between the United States and other nations with special attention to the sale and transportation of commercial goods to and from the United States. The responsibility of maintaining an American merchant marine also fell to the secretary of commerce.


The Department of Commerce, which employs approximately thirty-six thousand people, is a remarkably complex organization with operations both domestic and international. Many of its subdivisions have a profound influence on the overall business community of the United States. Its Minority Business Development Agency has done a great deal, for example, to encourage the growth of enterprises run by members of racial and ethnic minorities, thereby creating employment opportunities for many who had found it difficult to flourish in the workplace.

Every decade, the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of theCensus, also a branch of the Department of Commerce, undertakes the enormous task of counting the population of the United States and of classifying it in ways that are extremely useful to the business community in planning such initiatives as the establishment of new manufacturing and marketing facilities.

Through the census, determinations can be made about where certain groups are clustered and which areas of the country are increasing or decreasing in size. The demographic information provided by the census is indispensable to industry as it makes the long-term plans that such industries must necessarily consider if they are to succeed economically.

The protection of intellectual properties through copyrights and trademarks and of inventions through the issuance of Patentspatents is a function of the Department of Commerce. The protection that copyrights and patents guarantee is of the utmost importance in businesses ranging from entertainment to a broad range of manufacturing industries.

International Outreach

One of the most important mandates of the Trade;Commerce, U.S. Department ofDepartment of Commerce is that of promoting American business and trade with foreign countries. It promotes this goal directly through its Economic Development Administration and its Import Administration. When the department was first established, United States industry was extremely dependent on foreign trade for its existence, so the early secretaries of commerce worked closely with their foreign counterparts to establish valuable trade relations. It also worked collaboratively with the Department of State to foster the trade relations with foreign countries that were so vital to its existence.

As part of its charge to promote technological advancement, the department engages in comprehensive research enterprises that monitor the advancement of technology within the United States but that also track technological advances throughout the world. A great many of the patents and trademarks issued by the Department of Commerce domestically relate directly to protecting America’s daunting proliferation of technological advances and of the intellectual properties that relate to them.

A Change in Emphasis

Following World War I, the business communities of the United States tended to view foreign involvement with some suspicion. A new isolationism swept much of the country. It was in such an atmosphere that Herbert Hoover, HerbertHoover became President Warren G. Harding’s secretary of commerce in 1921, a position in which he continued in 1923 when Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency following Harding’s death. Hoover sought to make the Department of Commerce preeminent among the administration’s cabinets.

The economic surges that characterized the 1920’s created an atmosphere that was advantageous to big business. Although the department continued to promote international trade, its major emphasis was gradually shifting to the promotion of domestic business. The economic excesses of this period, labeled “The Roaring Twenties,” led eventually to the Harding administration’s being widely discredited, but Hoover retained his position, and by 1928, his last year in his position as secretary, he had gained sufficient popularity and support–much derived directly from the business community–that he ran for the presidency of the United States and was elected.

Shortly into Hoover’s term as president, however, the economic bubble of the 1920’s burst and the Great Depression ensued. In the next election, held in 1932, Hoover was overwhelmingly defeated, and Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced him as president of the United States. Under Roosevelt and his New Deal, the Department of Commerce had little choice but to turn its major attention to domestic matters as it struggled to return the nation to greater prosperity.

World War II

The domestic emphasis of the Department of Commerce continued through the 1930’s, at the end of which, in 1939, World War II erupted in Europe. With the onset of this war, the Department of Commerce again pressed for a more international emphasis as American industry began to recover from the economic downturn of the Great Depression and devote itself to providing the goods and equipment that a wartime economy demanded. With the entry of the United States into World War II in December, 1941, American industry was operating at optimal levels to meet the increased demand.

The Department of Commerce helped to expand the workforce as many in it entered military service and were, therefore, forced to leave their civilian jobs. As a result, women and members of racial minorities, who began to constitute a major portion of the American workforce, were assisted by the department as they prepared to enter manufacturing industries. With the need to rebuild much of Europe following World War II, the international emphasis of the Department of Commerce continued.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Juanita Kreps, a Duke University economics professor, as the first female secretary of commerce. Women;in business[business]As secretary, Kreps worked assiduously to ensure women fair treatment in the workplace. She struggled to remove the so-called glass ceiling that prevented many talented women from advancing to the heights for which their abilities clearly qualified them.


During the administration of Ronald Reagan, substantial changes were made in the organization of the Department of Commerce. Under this new organization, seven discrete offices were created below those of the secretary of commerce and the deputy secretary. Among these are the crucial offices of the agency’s general counsel and of the assistant secretaries for congressional affairs and for administration.

Those who report directly to the secretary of commerce are the associate deputy secretary, the inspector general, the special assistant for regional development, and the director for public affairs. Seven assistant secretaries oversee such areas as tourism, economic affairs, trade development, productivity, technology, innovation, and communications and information. The broad range of activities assigned to these assistant secretaries gives one some notion of the scope of enterprises and interests that occupy those working in the United States Department of Commerce.

Of great importance to American business is the department’s National Bureau of Standards, which is charged with monitoring such matters as weights and measures. The department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has grown in significance as interest in ecology and in such matters as global warming have increased in importance not only nationally but also throughout the world. The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Industrial Economics have helped American industries plot their course with much more confidence than they would have were it not for what the research of these two entities has revealed about the nation’s business climate.

Trade and Research

The Department of Commerce continues to be much concerned with stimulating foreign trade. It works with the Department of State to formulate government policies regarding foreign trade and international commerce. It also distributes information about foreign trade opportunities throughout the world.

To achieve these ends, the department maintains a group of trade representatives based in foreign countries and, with their input, produces a staggering variety of publications that alert the business community to opportunities that the department has uncovered through its research and interactions with foreign governments and industries.

The Department of Commerce supports a broad and productive assortment of research activities related to American business interests, both domestic and international. Research is carried out on a regular basis by three major branches of the department, the National Bureau of Standards, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Weather Service.

The research produced by these three major entities continually informs the American business community of developments directly related to those communities. The department has extremely well-organized conduits for the dissemination of the information produced by the research arms of the department.

Further Reading
  • Borrelli, MaryAnne. The President’s Cabinet: Gender, Power, and Representation. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner, 2002. A feminist account of the functions of the presidential cabinet and of how it helps to shape attitudes about race and gender.
  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. The Reader’s Companion to the American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Brinkley and Dyer devote twelve pages to Herbert Hoover, mostly to his term as president, although they comment briefly but cogently on his service as secretary of commerce.
  • Cicarelli, James, and Julianne Cicarelli. Distinguished Women Economists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. The authors devote four pages to a discussion of economist Juanita Kreps, who served as secretary of commerce in Jimmy Carter’s administration.
  • Gould, Lewis L. The Modern American Presidency. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003. Gould devotes the first twenty-eight pages of his book to the relationship of the first secretary of commerce, George B. Cortelyou, to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Holford, David M. Herbert Hoover. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 1999. In this comprehensive biography, Holford provides insights on how Hoover helped to transform the United States Department of Commerce during his tenure as secretary of commerce.
  • Kreps, Juanita Morris. Sex, Age, and Work: The Changing Composition of the American Work Force. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. An interesting account of how Kreps viewed the American workforce in this book published two years before she became secretary of commerce.
  • Miller, Walter L. The Life and Accomplishments of Herbert Hoover. Durham, N.C.: Moore, 1970. An appreciative assessment of President Herbert Hoover’s contributions to American business.

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