What Are Rotary’s Roots?
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. 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.  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. Women-only service organizations allowed middle-class women to champion education and public involvement along with religious and family values. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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
Early Rotary culture encouraged members to forgo formality and engage in all manner of hijinks. This book presents 101 stunts for a weekly Rotary meeting, 1933 [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 2.)
Rotarians often sang songs at weekly meetings. This booklet contains the official selections of the Rotary, 1945 [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 1.)
By the start of the twentieth century, many Americans held an aversion to the secrecy and seemingly bizarre rituals of fraternal orders. Fraternities fell out of public favor, and in response, men’s service clubs arose to fill the gap left by the diminished lodges. Organizations such as Rotary presented fellowship, an opportunity to expand business, and a chance to engage in public service, but in a casual environment devoid of intricate ceremonies and solemn oaths. Rotarians instead agreed to implement the “4-Way Test” into their business practices and lifestyles and embraced a nonsectarian and nonpartisan policy for members. Rotary, like the fraternal orders, offered comfort to middle-class businessmen dealing with an economy increasingly dominated by big business. However, rather than sheltering the members from the harsh realities of early twentieth-century capitalism, Rotary gave small businessmen a place to express their concerns and share their ideas with like-minded individuals. As a result, Rotary helped to transform members into engaged citizens of the world.
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?
First half of excerpt from Rotary’s 50th anniversary magazine, 1955 [click to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives, Manuscript Collection 234, Box 3, Item 7, Page 14.)
Second half of excerpt from Rotary’s 50th anniversary magazine, 1955 [click to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives, Manuscript Collection 234, Box 3, Item 7, Page 15.)
Perhaps the most significant event in the proliferation of Rotary’s global engagement came in the form of the First World War. With patriotism and volunteerism at an all-time high, businessmen the world over viewed Rotary as a great opportunity to serve both their community and their nation. The service club fervor started during the war and continued well into the 1920s. In fact, the number of clubs almost doubled from 415 at the start of 1919 to 758 by 1921, allowing Rotary to boast over 17,000 members globally. Rotary became particularly popular in rural American towns where the organization’s members primarily consisted of small and independent business professionals. In this atmosphere of patriotism and service, many of Logan’s leading businessmen joined together to establish their own Rotary Club.
 Jeffery A. Charles, Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 9.
 Charles, 25-27.
 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.
 Derr, 251.
 Charles, 11.
 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.
 Putney, 182.
 Putney, 183.
 Putney, 187.
 Putney, 189.
 Charles, 44.
 Charles, 45.
 Charles, 45.