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This Month in Business History

Department of Commerce Founded

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says that Congress has the power:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes; 1

Using that language as a guide, the House of Representatives created the Committee of Commerce and Manufactures in 1795. As the United States grew, various government agencies and bureaus were created but other than monitoring trade, none had the specific focus of commerce.

In 1902, the Senate introduced S569 to "establish Department of Commerce and Labor." When debate on the bill began on January 13, 1902, Senator Nelson had this to say:

There is among our Executive Departments no department that stands charged with the care, promotion, and development of our vast commercial, manufacturing, mining, and other industrial enterprises.

......These vast interests of our people — the great throbbings of our economic and industrial life — have no governmental head, direction, or guidance, but are left to shift for themselves without any system, harmony, or unity of action, so essential to thorough and permanent progress. Such a condition is not only hampering in dealing with ourselves, but is much more embarrassing, retarding, and injurious when we come to compete with other nations and enter the competitive field of the world's traffic and commerce. To enter the markets of foreign countries effectively and systematically we must thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the laws, trade conditions, resources, and wants of those countries. This can only be done systematically and effectively through an organ of our government charged with such task — the gathering and dissemination of the necessary information.2

It wasn’t until February 14, 1903 that the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor was created with George B. Cortelyou as its first Secretary. Ten years later on March 4, 1913, it was renamed the Department of Commerce when the Department of Labor was created. When it was created, Congressman Mann speaking on the House floor in support of the bill was clear about the interest in growing business and industry in the United States and said the following:

We think also that the Government might well give special consideration to the home, industries of our country by giving them direct representation in the Cabinet as well as by the creation of some new bureaus devoted to their interests. 3

Over its history, multiple departments and functions have been housed within the Department of Commerce. In the original legislation the following functions were slated to be transferred to the new agency: The Bureau of Navigation, Light-house Board, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, Steamboat Inspection, Commissioner of Fish & Fisheries, Life-Saving Service, Marine-Hospital Services, Steamboat Inspection Service, Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Statistics, Patent Office, Department of Labor, Bureau of Foreign Commerce. Originally the Census Bureau would be part of the Department of the Treasury, but ultimately it too was transferred to this new agency.4 Commerce picked up other functions including: Bureau of Mines, Weather Bureau, and the Radio Division. Some of those functions still exist within the Agency; as of 2024, the Agency includes:

  • Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
  • Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)
  • U.S. Census Bureau
  • Economic Development Administration (EDA)
  • Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs (OUS/EA)
  • International Trade Administration (ITA)
  • Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • National Technical Information Service (NTIS)
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Since it was created, the Department of Commerce has had a number of notable secretaries. While George B. Cortelyou was the first Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor, William Redfield was the first Secretary of Commerce. Other secretaries include W. Averell Harriman, Malcolm Baldrige, and Juanita Kreps the first female to serve as Secretary. One of the most well-known people to serve as Secretary was Herbert Hoover who was appointed in 1921 and later became the 31st President in 1929.

The agency, through many of its offices and Bureaus, publishes many reports and collects data on the economy and people of America. Today it acts as the voice of business in the federal government and promotes economic growth and opportunity by working to strengthen domestic industry and encourage growth of quality jobs. In his remarks on the 1902 bill, Representative Cochran said:

Mr. Chairman, what do we expect to accomplish by creating a Department of Commerce? The name of the new Department answers the question. We hope to develop new fields of profitable trade and foster old ones. We hope to facilitate industrial development and promote commerce at home and abroad.5

Images from the Department of Commerce Building

Print Resources

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Internet Resources

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Additional works on this topic in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. There will also be books on the history of the agencies that became part of the Department when it was created or before their functions were transferred to the Department. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list of subject headings to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in accessing the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings that may relate to this subject, please consult a reference librarian.


  1. The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription, National Archives (Washington). Back to text
  2. Congressional Record, (Washington: January, 13 1902), p 598. Back to text
  3. Congressional Record, (Washington: January, 15 1903), p 859. Back to text
  4. Congressional Record, (Washington: January, 20 1902), p 761. Back to text
  5. Congressional Record, (Washington: January, 15 1903), Appendix, p 144. Back to text