The term "commissionaire" can apply to different positions depending on the place and context. In the United Kingdom, a commissionaire is generally a doorman, porter or security guard. In continental Europe, commissionaires traditionally attend to the baggage of a hotel guest arriving by train, ensuring that the luggage is transported from the train station to the hotel.
Historically, commissionaires in mainland Europe acted as general attendants, mostly based in train stations. Wearing distinct uniforms, the commissionaires shined boots, cleaned floors and did a variety of domestic tasks. An American traveling in Paris in 1852 wrote in The New York Times that "it is impossible to find anything that they are not ready to do at a moment's notice, even to giving you the news of the day or the gossip of the neighborhood."
The first British commissionaires were unemployed soldiers in the 1850s. Captain Sir Edward Walter wanted to find work for military personnel who were injured and unable to find consistent work. He founded the Corps of Commissionaires, which employed men to deliver messages around London and stand guard at the doors of post offices, hotels, shops, banks and other public institutions. This institution spread to Canada and Australia in the 20th century. The Corps of Commissionaires is now a security company, with the British monarchy as its head.
Commissionaires generally wear uniforms. As former soldiers, members of the Corps of Commissionaires are required to maintain strict uniform standards of presentation at at all times, and European commissionaires wear distinct uniforms to signify their role in the midst of a crowd. In the modern day, British commissionaires wear clearly identifiable uniforms relating to their place of work.
In a legal context, a commissionaire is an individual or organization that works on behalf of a company, known as the principal, but is not considered part of that company. Commissionaires are common in civil law jurisdictions in Europe. The commissionaire fulfills contracts with customers on behalf of the principal, and all business between the principal and the customers is done through the commissionaire. Commissionaires are paid by the principal and act as distributors.
Oftentimes, a company will use a commissionaire to conduct business in a foreign country. The commissionaire is not a dependent of the principal company, so that company does not have to pay taxes in the country where the commissionaire does business. There have been legal challenges in Europe to the legality of this arrangement.