Trademark in the Archives, Part III: Proper Use of REALTOR®

In honor of the REALTOR® Trademark Centennial, we’ve looked back through the NAR Archives to share documents that tell the history of the term. The third post in this series examines NAR’s vigilance in maintaining the correct usage of REALTOR®.

Efforts to promote awareness of the term REALTOR® found immediate success following the National Association of Real Estate Board’s adoption of the word in June of 1916.  As the National Real Estate Journal reported in January, 1918, “the word was only adopted last year, yet splendid progress has already been made in getting it forcibly before the public.”  However, NAREB found that greater use of REALTOR® did not necessarily mean proper use.  The same journal article explained that “two boards reported some trouble with non-members attempting to appropriate the title.”  It was clear that promotion of REALTOR® had to go beyond mere awareness.

The "Realtyor," 1924.

The “Realtyor,” 1924.

To encourage the correct use among its members and boards, NAREB sent out manuals and pamphlets that drew attention to the requirements of the term REALTOR®.    “It should always be capitalized,” one such guideline read, “in order to manifest its distinctive character and because of its inclusion in various registrations.”  Also forbidden were alternate spellings or variations on the term, as in examples such as REALTER, REAL-I-TOR, REALTORific, and even Realtorily Yours.

From "Manual on promotion of the term REALTOR®," 1944.

From “Manual on promotion of the term REALTOR®,” 1944.

Not only did NAREB engage members and local boards in promoting appropriate use of the term, but also regularly informed the publishing industry of REALTOR® standards.  Series of advertisements aimed at journalists and copy editors made sure to explain the correct spelling, capitalization, and pronunciation of the term and instructed that the descriptions “real estate broker” or “real estate agent” be used in cases where a person’s status as a REALTOR® was uncertain.

REALTOR® advertisement for editors, 1985.

REALTOR® advertisement for editors, 1985.

Despite these efforts, there were still examples of misuse.   The association has always taken such violations seriously, defending the term in court when necessary. The first such legal case was brought  against the Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company in 1920.  Presenting evidence that the company had inappropriately described many non-members as REALTORS® in its telephone directory,  the complaint argued that this “is an unlawful interference with the rights of the business of the plaintiffs, and that it is fraudulent and states facts which are not true.” Judgment was ruled in favor of NAREB, which set a precedent for future legal cases defending the association’s exclusive right to the term.

Judgment in Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company case, 1920.

Judgment in Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company case, 1920.

Over the years, some particulars of how to render the word REALTOR® have changed.  The registered trademark symbol was incorporated as part of the term after it was granted collective mark status in 1949. Adoption of the “R” logo in 1973, which the next post in this series will address, introduced a new set of requirements.  However, the basics have always remained the same: always capitalize REALTOR®, never modify the term, and – of course – only use it to refer to members of NAR.  As General Counsel Nathan William MacChesney wrote in the early 1920s, REALTORS® are “held out to the public as having the ethical standards, character, reputation, knowledge, and responsibility as well as the other qualities and characteristics which are required of members of the National Association of Real Estate Boards.”  Undoubtedly, this reputation is something that is still worth preserving.

Reminder cards, 1970.

Reminder cards, 1970.


Hathaway Hester

Hathaway Hester, MLIS, DAS, is manager of the association archives at the National Association of REALTORS®. She currently serves on the Steering Committee of the Chicago Area Archivists as well as the Education Committee of the Midwest Archives Conference.

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