The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945

by Chris Mead

This original history tells how pickup teams of American business people changed their communities and sometimes their nation and the world.

From starting the Miss America Pageant to naming and funding Lindbergh's plane to going after Al Capone and San Francisco's lawless Sydney Ducks, these merchants found ways to get things done. The book describes the real "Rhett Butler" and how he smuggled goods and money into the South while, on the Yankee side, chambers worked to outfox the rebels -- and also made sure their cities got their fair share of federal wartime spending. Often putting forth heroic efforts once war was declared, major chambers showed a surprising reluctance, bordering on cowardice at times, before the outbreak of major wars. Such conflicts were too risky and organized business people were willing to tell this to political leaders from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to FDR. Chambers would not shrink from fights for reliable currency, however. The book highlights chamber efforts to oppose doctored coins in 1768, free silver after the Civil War, and financial instability before and after the Panic of 1907 (causing them to play a leading role in founding what became the Federal Reserve System). This book also discusses the massive chamber efforts to promote transportation, an obsession that continues to this day: the deepening of harbors, the attraction of railroads (and then fights to keep freight rates fair), the building of thousands of roads, and the creation of hundreds of airports. Finally, there were efforts for plain old economic growth. Some were brilliant at promoting their communities, with Frank Wiggins of the Los Angeles Chamber once assembling 375,000 oranges for an exhibit in Chicago and later being called by Life Magazine "the greatest city booster who ever lived." Local political tangles, too, are recounted, along with a big national project: the founding in 1912 of the largest chamber of them all, the U.S. Chamber.

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