When the War Department Was in the Retail Business

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Montgomery Ward chairman Sewell Avery being forcibly removed from his office in Chicago.

One of the oddest actions of the US Army in WWII took place not on the battlefield but in an office building in the city of Chicago. Pictured above is a photograph of Sewell Avery, chairman of Montgomery Ward, being carried out of his office by two soldiers. The soldiers were apparently prepared for the worst as they are wearing steel pot helmets and carry bayonets and gas masks. It was one chapter in a very bitter and public feud between the President of the United States and the head of the largest American retail operation of the day.

On more than one occasion during the war labor unrest threatened or potentially threatened industry that was necessary for the war effort. When this occurred the President exercised emergency war powers to take control of the business. Such was the case with Montgomery Ward.

Customers in Jamaica (N.Y.) read President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proclamation about taking over the Montgomery Ward stores on Dec. 28, 1944.
Montgomery Ward customers read a notice from the War Department
announcing its seizure of the company’s Jamaica, NY facility. (AP photo).

Sewell Avery, the retailer’s chairman, did not care much for Roosevelt and the New Deal. He cared even less for labor unions. When Montgomery Ward employees began to organize, Avery threatened to close the facilities. Avery then refused to accept a union contract and the employees threatened to strike. FDR literally sent in the Army.

Claiming that the labor disruption would have an effect on the war effort, FDR had the War Department take over the operation of the facilities in December 1944.

The numismatic connection? Catalog retailers used pre-printed bearer checks for refunds. These checks could be used for future purchases or cashed at a bank. The War Department administrators at Montgomery Ward had special checks printed for refunds related to the facilities they operated.

The War Department ran the facilities until October 1945. Four different Special Representatives of the Secretary of War were in charge during these eleven months. Each of them had checks printed with their signature.

This War Department check from June 1945 is a remarkable piece. The face and back show multiple endorsements. Apparently, Mrs. Glen Knudson of Fairmount, MN kept the check until July 1971 when she used it at the Montgomery Ward store there. It was accepted and entered the banking channels.

It was first deposited into the retailers account at the First National Bank of Minneapolis. Since the check was drawn on the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company of Chicago, it next went to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank who forwarded it to the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank who sent it to Continental. Continental refused the check because the check was stale and the account was closed. The remaining myriad of stamps on the back cancel the endorsements made by each bank after it was refused by Continental. It seems like an awful lot of trouble for a penny!

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