Creating a Civil Society: The Chamber in the 19th Century

1884 Flood Postcard
A hand drawn postcard of the rescue and relief efforts headed by the Chamber of Commerce and Associated Charities in the midst of the devastating floods of 1883 and 1884

In the early 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States for two years. After he returned home, he wrote and published Democracy in America, which remains to this day the most perceptive and enduring critique of the American character.

One phenomenon that struck de Tocqueville was the propensity Americans of all backgrounds and classes to form voluntary associations of a thousand kinds "religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive." For de Tocqueville this creation of a civil society from the bottom up was a mark of the new American democracy as much as any political theory.

In part this was a response to lack of strong governing institutions, established social structures and the constant churning of society resulting from the high mobility of the population and the regular infusion of foreign immigrants. Cincinnatians founded hundreds of voluntary associations in an attempt to shape the civic space. The formation of the Chamber of Commerce in 1839 was just one example.

1882 Chamber Membership Certificate
Chamber of Commerce membership certificate of Albert Fisher in 1882. Under Superintendent Sidney Maxwell the number of Chamber members grew from 1200 to 2275 between 1871 and 1891.
1885 Chamber Membership Receipt
Albert D. Fisher owned a canned fruits and meats business at 227 Main Street. He lived on Lincoln Ave. in Walnut Hills.

A review of some of the published reports by the Chamber in the nineteenth century reveals the activity of the Chamber itself, the changing character of Cincinnati and the important role of voluntary organizations in shaping local life.

It is not surprising that many of early these reports focused on data that helped manufacturers, merchants and retailers make sense of the economic environment. These reports were especially important given the lack of consistent data generated by any national authority.

A report in August 1865, just four months after the close of the Civil War, was typical. The bulk of the report consists of statistical tables tracking production and trade in everything from beer to beeswax, pork to furniture. The author, William Smith, the Superintendent of the Chamber, notes the growing popularity of beer, partly because of the "very high prices of distilled spirits," but also because of "the taste that has been acquired for 'Lager,' as a beverage, not only among the native German population, but all classes."

Smith also attempts to understand the economic aftermath of the war. On the one hand, he weighs the short-term effects of the "national debt of great magnitude" and the collapse of prices with the end of the war, with the long-term advantages that will come from the nation finally adopting a "national and uniform currency" and a national banking system.

But Smith's most telling observation is about the desolation and disorganization of the Southern States, Cincinnati's most important pre-war trading partners. "Poverty has spread its leaden wings over the fair and fertile expanse of the country, four years ago fully as wealthy, prosperous and fruitful as any in the universe." Over the next 25 years, that reality would drive Cincinnatians to attempt to both rebuild contacts in the South by constructing the Cincinnati Southern Railroad and seek to attract new markets by the organization of a series of ever more elaborate industrial fairs. The Chamber of Commerce supported both efforts.

A series of reports in the 1880s and '90s all entitled "The River Interests of the City of Cincinnati" written by Chamber Superintendent Sidney Maxwell documented the role of the trading artery that made Cincinnati great in the first half of the century. On a year-to-year basis, the reports detail the impact of floods, low water and ice gorges on packet and barge traffic. But in a larger sense, these reports track the rapid decline of the influence of the river and steamboats. By 1889 it is clear that the traditional packet boat was rapidly being replaced by more mundane tows and barges.

Since the 1820s boat building had been one of the most important and complex industries in Cincinnati, but in 1888, Maxwell noted that the "business of boat-building, beyond that of repairs, at this city, seems, for the present, to have disappeared." What Maxwell did not understand was that much of the capital and skilled labor accumulated in the boat building industry was being redirected into the emerging machine tool industry that would define much of the local economy for the next 100 years.

These river reports provide the backdrop for two revealing reports. In 1887 the Chamber issued a memorial to the Ohio General Assembly entitled "A Canal Town in a Railroad Era." Cincinnati business interests wanted to drain the state owned Miami Erie Canal and convert the right away into a belt line connecting the various railroad terminals scattered through the Basin. The request fell on deaf ears in Columbus, but it reflects the effort of the Chamber and the business community to deal with new realities.

In 1883 and 1884 Cincinnati suffered two record setting floods. As documented in an 1884 report by W.W. Peabody, the President of the Chamber, the Chamber of Commerce, not City government, assumed the primary responsibility for relief efforts. Both years a committee headed by the President of the Chamber set up offices, collected donations and oversaw re-housing the displaced (mostly in the city's schools) and the distribution of clothing and food. Because the Chamber had no organizational reach into the affected districts, it enlisted Associated Charities (later known as Family Service and now as known as LifePoint Solutions) to manage the distribution of relief. The social workers of Associated Charities knew the people and knew who deserved assistance, protecting the Chamber that from charges that it distributed charity to someone who was undeserving.

These early reports illustrate the activities of one association. They all illustrate the important role of civic associations in democratically shaping civil society and the American character observed by Alexis de Tocqueville. That is especially the case in the joint effort of the Chamber of Commerce and Associated Charities in response to the 1883 and 1884 floods.

Hurley, DanBy Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

This is the second in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.

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