A REALTOR® By Any Other Name

May 1, 2008

The year 1916 saw the introduction of a new name for the association’s members—REALTORS®. Coined by Charles Chadbourn, a past president of the Minneapolis Real Estate Board, the word quickly became a vital and enduring tool in conveying the benefits of membership in the association to both real estate brokers and the general public.

Recounting the tale of how he came up with the term, Chadbourn explained that the idea came to him in 1915 after seeing a news headline that read “Real Estate Man Swindles a Poor Widow.” He went on to make assurances that the case had nothing to do with the local board or national association: “A casual examination of the article showed that the ‘real estate man’ in question was not a member of our local real estate board, but was only an obscure speculator with desk room in some back office.”

Recently discovered information suggests that the real estate man referred to in the headline was not an obscure speculator at all, but more likely was August H. Frederick, who served as the first president of the association. Mirroring Chadbourn’s story, Frederick had been convicted in 1915 of swindling a poor widow. After his conviction, Frederick’s name was virtually expunged from official records. The downfall of Frederick, a well-known businessman, active church official, and aspiring politician who had been elected president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen the day before his arrest, was reported prominently in newspapers across the country. It’s highly probable that his story inspired Chadbourn.

On March 27, 1916, the Executive Committee passed Chadbourn’s resolution establishing REALTOR® to mean member of the association. In the same year, the association’s name changed to National Association of Real Estate Boards.

The term gained acceptance quickly, according to Jeffrey Hornstein, author of A Nation of REALTORS®: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class (Duke University Press, 2006). It wasn’t long, however, before people began using it to refer to any practitioner, as they might “doctor” or “lawyer.”

Inevitably, practitioners who weren’t members sought access to the term. As a result, local committees formed to ensure the word was being used correctly.

Chadbourn realized that the newly coined word needed to have lasting significance in the eyes of the public. He expressed this intention in the March 15, 1916, issue of the National Real Estate Journal by publishing a sample certificate along with his plan to have the association adopt the REALTOR® term. On the draft certificate, “copyrighted” appears immediately beneath the word REALTOR®.

Even paperwork filed with the Secretary of State of Illinois on May 18, 1917, shows the association’s intention to copyright the word. The Certificate of Change of Name reprints the language of the entire resolution, passed almost one year earlier:. . . RESOLVED, That we recommend to the Executive Committee the adoption of the title “REALTOR” to be used exclusively by members of this Association.

That the Executive Committee be and is hereby empowered to investigate the feasibility of copyrighting said title…

The man who led this effort was Nathan William MacChesney, who served as general counsel for the national association from its founding in 1908 until his retirement in 1947. At the time of the word’s adoption, federal law didn’t allow for it to be registered as a trademark. Many states did allow the registration of the term, however, and by the time he retired, MacChesney had successfully registered the trademark in 46 states. With the passage of the 1946 Trademark Act, known as the Lanham Act, the association was able to register the term as a collective membership mark.

The collective marks REALTORS® and REALTOR® were registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office on Sept. 13, 1949, and Jan. 10, 1950, respectively, under Registration Numbers 515,200 and 519,789. Since then, the association has maintained a vigilant defense of the trademarks, prevailing in numerous cases. Most recently, in Zimmerman v. NAR (2004), the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board denied a request to cancel the trademarks.

Research conducted for NAR in 2005 showed that the REALTOR® brand generates $32,000 in incremental income for every REALTOR® during an average membership length of ten years. Had Chadbourn known the power of his invention, he may have had second thoughts about assigning it to the association. He was paid the sum of $1.