A club is an association of people united by a common interest or goal. A service club, for example, exists for voluntary or charitable activities; there are clubs devoted to hobbies and sports, social activities clubs, political and religious clubs, and so forth.
The word “club,” in the sense of an association to promote good-fellowship and social intercourse, became common in England at the time of Tatler and The Spectator (1709–1712). With the introduction of coffee-drinking in the middle of the 17th century, clubs entered on a more permanent phase. The coffee houses of the later Stuart period are the real originals of the modern clubhouse. The clubs of the late 17th and early 18th century type resembled their Tudor forerunners in being oftenest associations solely for conviviality or literary coteries. But many were confessedly political, e.g. The Rota, or Coffee Club (1659), a debating society for the spread of republican ideas, broken up at the Restoration in 1660, the Calves Head Club (c.1693) and the Green Ribbon Club (1675). The characteristics of all these clubs were:
These coffee-house clubs soon became hotbeds of political scandal-mongering and intriguing, and in 1675 King Charles II issued a proclamation which ran: “His Majesty hath thought fit and necessary that coffee houses be (for the future) put down and suppressed,” because “in such houses divers false, malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majesty’s Government and to the Disturbance of Peace and Quiet of the Realm.” So unpopular was this proclamation that it was almost instantly found necessary to withdraw it, and by Anne’s reign the coffee-house club was a feature of England’s social life.
The peripatetic lifestyle of the 18th and 19th century middle classes also drove the development of more residential clubs, which had bedrooms and other facilities. Military and naval officers, lawyers, judges, members of Parliament and government officials tended to have an irregular presence in the major cities of the Empire, particularly London, spending perhaps a few months there before moving on for a prolonged period and then returning. Especially when this presence did not coincide with the Season, a permanent establishment in the city (i.e., a house owned or rented, with the requisite staff), or the opening of a townhouse (generally shuttered outside the season) was inconvenient or uneconomic, while hotels were rare and socially declasee. Clubbing with a number of like-minded friends to secure a large shared house with a manager was therefore a convenient solution.
The other sort of club meets occasionally or periodically and often has no clubhouse, but exists primarily for some specific object. Such are the many purely athletic, sports and pastimes clubs, the Alpine, chess, yacht and motor clubs. Also there are literary clubs (see writing circle and book club), musical and art clubs, publishing clubs; and the name of “club” has been annexed by a large group of associations which fall between the club proper and mere friendly societies, of a purely periodic and temporary nature, such as slate, goose and Christmas clubs, which do not need to be registered under the Friendly Societies Act.
The institution of the gentleman's club has spread all over the English-speaking world. Many of those who energised the Scottish Enlightenment were members of the Poker Club in Edinburgh. In the United States clubs were first established after the War of Independence. One of the first was the Hoboken Turtle Club (1797), which still survived as of 1911.
The earliest clubs on the European continent were of a political nature. These in 1848 were repressed in Austria and Germany, and later clubs of Berlin and Vienna were mere replicas of their English prototypes. In France, where the term cercle is most usual, the first was Le Club Politique (1782), and during the French Revolution such associations proved important political forces (see Jacobins, Feuillants, Cordeliers). Of the purely social clubs in Paris the most notable were the Jockey-Club de Paris (1833), the Cercle de l'Union, the Traveller's and the Cercle Interallié.
The modern gentlemen's club, sometimes proprietary, i.e. owned by an individual or private syndicate, but more frequently owned by the members who delegate to a committee the management of its affairs, first reached its highest development in London, where the district of St. James's has long been known as “Clubland”. Current London clubs include Soho's Groucho Club, which opened in 1985 as "the antidote to the traditional club." In this spirit, the club was named for Groucho Marx because of his famous remark that he would not wish to join any club that would have him as a member.
Membership can be limited or open to the general public, as can the events. Most clubs have a limited membership based upon specific criteria, and limit the events to members to increase the security of the members, thus creating an increased sense of cameradery and belonging. Social activities clubs can be for profit or not for profit, and some are a mix of the two (a for-profit club with a non-profit charitable arm, for instance). The Inter-Varsity Club (IVC) is the biggest British non-profit one.
Athletic and country clubs offer one or more recreational sports facilities to their members. Such clubs may also offer social activities and facilities, and some members may join primarily to take advantage of the social opportunities. Country clubs offer a variety of recreational sports facilities to its members and are usually located in suburban or rural areas. Most country clubs have golf. Swimming pools, tennis courts, polo grounds and exercise facilities are also common. Country clubs usually provide dining facilities to their members and guests, and frequently host catered events like weddings. Similar clubs in urban areas are often called athletic clubs. These clubs often feature indoor sports, such as indoor tennis, squash, basketball, boxing, and exercise facilities.
Members of sports clubs that support a team can be sports amateurs -- groups who meet to practice a sport, as for example in most cycling clubs -- or professionals -- football clubs consist of well-paid team members and thousands of supporters. A sports club can thus comprise participants (not necessarily competitors) or spectator fans, or both.
Some organizations exist with a mismatch between name and function. The Jockey Club is not a club for jockeys, but rather exists to regulate the sport of horseracing; the Marylebone Cricket Club was until recently the regulatory body of cricket, and so on.
Sports club should not be confused with gyms and health clubs, which also can be for members only.