On December 27, 1944, the U.S. government seized control of properties belonging to Montgomery Ward, a successful department store retailer that had been in business since 1872.
Why you ask? We hope you’re asking…
During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with ongoing labor strikes holding up production of material for the war effort. He created the National War Labor Board in 1942 to address this issue. The board negotiated labor issues to avoid strikes.
Sewell Avery, the chairmen of Montgomery Ward, refused to comply with the demands of unions and the War Labor Board’s order for compromise. “To hell with the government!” Avery yelled in April 1944 at Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had flown to Chicago in hopes of placating him. “I want none of your damned advice.”
Biddle ordered two National Guardsmen to lift Avery out of his office chair and carry him out of the building. “You … New Dealer!” Avery bellowed, referring to FDR’s Depression-era economic relief program. In an iconic photo, the two soldiers hold Avery in a sitting position, his arms crossed, as they remove him from the premises.
To circumvent a strike, President Roosevelt ordered Secretary of War Henry Stimson to seize Montgomery Ward’s plants and facilities in New York, Michigan, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon.
Advocates of Montgomery Ward argued their products were not essential to the war effort, as they supplied everything from car parts to clothing, but not weapons.
As a federal judge deliberated over the legality of the seizure, the U.S. Department of Commerce nominally ran the company. Before a ruling could be handed down, however, the union completed its election and employees returned to work. On May 9, 1944, Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones returned the company to private management.
Avery feared an economic downturn after World War II and refused to give his employees pension plans or insurance and stopped expanding the company. Competing company Sears quickly overtook Montgomery Ward. The company never returned to its former success and finally went out of business in 2001.
The history of this iconic retailer can be found in the Montgomery Ward Records which are available at the UW American Heritage Center.