Two talented Minneapolis printers

2215 Newton
2215 Newton Ave., onetime home of Gustaf Olson

In modern times, Minneapolis has been called “a city full of printers.” That was even truer 100 years ago when Minneapolis businessmen needed ever-increasing numbers of forms, records, letterhead and ledgers.

In the 1880s, a handful of print shops were clustered around Bridge Square, where Hennepin and Nicollet avenues met. Fifteen years later, these expanded to six dozen, increasingly sited along 4th Avenue South. By 1915, Minneapolis had hundreds of printers, with the southern stretches of 5th, 6th and 7th avenues holding block upon block of printing companies.

Everyone knew each other. Family members often worked for rival printing companies, and executives formed partnerships and new companies. Into this amiable and thriving scene entered Gustaf F. Olson.

Gustaf Olson
Gustaf Olson

Olson was an immigrant from Sweden, born in 1873. At 20, he was a skilled printer, working for the Daily Market Record, a business newspaper published by the head of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. He worked his way up to assistant manager before opening his own firm in 1910: G. F. Olson Printing, at 303 5th Ave. S.

During those early years, another talented young printer began his career. Barney Japs was an apprentice printer at 16; by 24, he was president of the Minneapolis Ruling and Bookbinding Co. Two years later, in 1908, he was simultaneously president of another bindery that sold ledgers.

By 1917, each was doing well enough to move into a new house. Olson lived at 2215 Newton Ave., one street off Lake of the Isles, and Barney Japs lived at 4317 Aldrich Ave., a few blocks from Lake Harriet. The same contractor built both houses. Perhaps that is not a coincidence. Both of these men would live in Southwest Minneapolis for the rest of their lives.

Barney Japs
Barney Japs

In 1919, they combined their businesses into the Japs-Olson Company. Japs had invented a loose-leaf binder for business ledger pages, and Olson had invented an accounting system for rural grain elevator operators. These and other sorts of business record keeping materials were in great demand. The business kept expanding.

Japs sold his share to Olson 10 years later and went on to form other printing companies and other partnerships. Olson ran the Japs-Olson Company until his death in the 1940s. He was justifiably proud of his large payroll during the hard years of the Great Depression. He was proud to support the local companies that sold him ink and paper. History looks less kindly on his insistence on a 48-hour workweek. He claimed in 1921 that a 44-hour week would cause increased costs that must be passed on to the customer.

Newspaper Cartoon
This cartoon ran in the April 14, 1935, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Olson was increasingly successful, and an alluring waterfront property caught his eye. In 1929, he and his wife, Crissie, moved down the block to 2322 W. Lake of the Isles Parkway. They lived there until the 1940s, when they both passed away.

Japs died in 1944, but the company has long outlived its founders. Well over 100 years old, Japs-Olson prints and mails millions of direct mail pieces every day. It is the largest employer in St. Louis Park, still run by the descendants of one of the early executives.

If your house is included in the Hennepin History Museum photo collection, you can ask Karen Cooper for a house history by emailing her at yf@urbancreek.com. Look for your Southwest Minneapolis house at tinyurl.com/hhm-houses. You can read more about the Japs-Olson Co. in the Hennepin History magazine.

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