What Are Rotary’s Roots?

The Rotarian: Rotary's Golden Anniversary Edition, 1955
The Rotarian magazine’s 50th anniversary edition, 1955 [click to enlarge; click again to browse all pages]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives, Manuscript Collection 234, Box 3, Item 7.)



Paul Harris, a Chicago lawyer, founded the original Rotary Club in 1905. Even though the term did not exist back then, Rotary began as a networking association for middle-class businessmen in Chicago. The organization became known as Rotary due to the “rotation” of meeting places each week. The club implemented its first service project in 1907 by installing public restrooms in downtown Chicago. Businessmen’s service associations soon became a national phenomenon, and by 1911, every major American city boasted a Rotary Club of its own.[1] However, Rotary’s broad appeal and popularity stems from two institutions deeply ingrained in nineteenth-century American society—women’s service organizations and lodge-style fraternalism. 

Women’s Service Clubs

Women formed service groups in the 1800s as a means to improve society through service and to expand their lives beyond the home. [2] Many of these organizations, even here in Utah, pre-date Chicago Rotary by several decades. A few local examples include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) female Relief Society, established in 1867, and the Ladies Aid Society formed by Utah Presbyterian women in 1880.[3] Women-only service organizations allowed middle-class women to champion education and public involvement along with religious and family values.[4] However, by the turn of the century, gender roles began to change. American men embraced a more compassionate role that encouraged them to operate outside of their traditional masculine functions.[5] Service became an appropriate outlet to do just that. So, while Rotary may not be the first service organization in the United States (that distinction belongs to women’s service groups), it can claim the title as the first modern men’s service club because it organized before both the Kiwanis (1915) and Lions (1917) associations. 

Fraternal Orders

Rotary Scrapbook Page, undated
A page from a Rotary scrapbook detailing some of the early days of the organization’s founding [click to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives, Manuscript Collection 234, Box 8, Scrapbook 1, Page 59.)

Other precursors to Rotary were the American fraternal organizations.[6] These groups (such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Red Men, Elks, and the Eagles) provided mutual aid and fellowship for white working and middle-class men in the mid-nineteenth century. Fraternity members wore special clothing, performed secret rituals, and conducted mysterious ceremonies to distract and provide escape from a rapidly industrializing and changing society.[7] However, as capitalist ideals and the American economy continued to grow, individuals soon began joining fraternal orders to make business connections rather than fellowship, much to the chagrin of fraternal leaders.[8] Also in the nineteenth century, fraternities and honor societies became very popular at many American universities. Overall, clubs enjoyed a prominent place in U.S. public life.


The Rise of Rotary

The 4-Way Test

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

[1] Jeffery A. Charles, Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 9.
[2] Charles, 25-27.
[3] Jill Mulvay Derr, “Scholarship, Service, and Sisterhood: Women’s Clubs and Associations, 1877–1977,” in Women in Utah History, eds. Patricia Lyn Scott, Linda Thatcher, and Susan Allred Whetstone (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005), 250.
[4] Derr, 251.
[5] Charles, 11.
[6] Clifford Putney, “Service Over Secrecy: How Lodge-Style Fraternalism Yielded Popularity to Men’s Service Clubs,” Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 1 (Summer 1993), 179.
[7] Putney, 182.
[8] Putney, 183.
[9] Putney, 187.
[10] Putney, 189.
[11] Charles, 44.
[12] Charles, 45.
[13] Charles, 45.