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Jacob Olswang was an avid businessman and immigrant who settled in the borough of Queens, New York. For thirty years, he and his sons, Walter and Arthur, oversaw a successful business selling furniture and flooring in a middle class neighborhood of Queens historically known as Jamaica.

Why is the flooring business so intriguing to me? I do not know much about my Jewish heritage, which happens to only run through the Olswang family. As distant and foreign as my Jewish heritage feels, my great-grandmother Ethel Olswang Freeman died in 1987[1] and Jacob in 1950,[2] therefore I am researching in a somewhat recent period of history (at least more recent than most of my genealogy pursuits take me). I am also fascinated because this is the first case in my family tree of a prominent family-run business. It does recall some elements of the immigrant experience regarding assimilation into a new society. I admire the tenacity and work ethic of the Olswangs to make for themselves prosperity and a comfortable lifestyle.

I have been collecting documentation about the Olswangs sporadically for five years, so it is a nice surprise that a great deal of evidence manifested itself recently. Local newspapers, digitized through fultonhistory.org, brought to light a slew of evidence about W. & a. Olswang Co. for me to digest. It was poignant to see how often the Olswangs graced the newspaper, which made me realize they were more respected and affluent than I might have originally thought.

Very little documentation has surfaced about Jacob’s early life and most of his genealogical information comes from his life in the United States. He usually stated his birthplace as Russia, however on the 1930 census, Jacob stated he was born in the province of Kurland, which is now present-day Lithuania.[3] Before crossing the Atlantic to live in New York, he came to the industrious city of Liverpool, England, where he married a “spinster” named Margaret McGrevey. Jacob and Margaret married 2 Jun 1895 at the Waterloo Christ Church of Sephton Parish, Lancashire County, England.[4] It is unclear what connected Jacob Olswang to the industry of flooring and selling, however on the marriage record he lists his occupation as “merchant”.[5] The couple had two children in England, Walter, born Christmas day 1896[6] and an unnamed child who died young.[7]

Genealogical research has only been able to provide a rough estimate of when Jacob Olswang and his family immigrated. The Olswang family arrived in America sometime between Walter’s birth and 1900. On his naturalization petition, Jacob gave his date of arrival as 28 Nov 1896.[8] This date conflicts with the fact Walter was born in England a month later, unless Jacob actually left before Margaret having the child. Jacob’s witness to the naturalization, Adolph Friedberg, says that he has known Jacob to have continuously resided in the United States since 30 March 1897.[9] Jacob consistently states his arrival as 1897 in US Census records. Jacob and Margaret had a second son named Arthur, born about Oct 1899 in New York.[10] Ethel was born last on 31 Dec 1902.[11]

Olswang Children

Ethel, Arthur, and Walter Olswang.

The Olswangs did not move to Jamaica until about 1920, previously residing in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Census records show that Jacob wore several hats in his profession, simultaneously laying carpets and linoleum in houses while selling them to customers. In 1900, Jacob and his family lived at First Ave in Manhattan where he is listed as a carpet layer.[12] On his naturalization petition dated 1904, Jacob stated his occupation as storekeeper and living at 26 Montgomery Street in Manhattan.[13] By 1910, the Olswangs are living at 1671 Prospect Place in the borough of Brooklyn. Jacob is working at a factory emporium as a carpet [second word illegible].[14] Around this time, Jacob would see more success in his business ventures. An article in 17 Apr 1914 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle talks about “New Brooklyn Companies” and reports that the Brooklyn Linoleum Co., owned by Jacob Olswang, Michael Olswang, and Louis Rein of Brooklyn, was offered and accepted a contract job from the State of New York.[15] The relationship of Jacob and Michael Olswang is not stated when they are living next to each other the 1915 New York State Census because they are separate heads of household.[16] Michael’s wife is named Sidonia and was born in Hungary. After searching for the couple on familysearch.org, I located a marriage record of Michael Olswang and Sidonia Braun dated 22 Feb 1911 in Manhattan. Michael stated his parents as Ephram Olswang and Annie Wolf.  The name of Michael’s father is the same as Jacob’s, who named Ephraim Olswang as his father on his marriage record. Evidence points to these two being brothers.*

1913-14 Brooklyn & Queens Business Directory.

1913-14 Brooklyn & Queens Business Directory.

Jacob’s eldest son Walter enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis on 31 Jul 1916.[17] The Naval Academy yearbooks showed that he rose to the rank of Petty Officer and was a high standing member of his class. Curiously, he was dismissed from the service 27 Feb 1919.[18] My assumption is that he left the Naval Academy to focus on the family business and eventually establish the W. & A. Olswang Company. Surely, the family business rested on the success of Jacob’s sons and their diverse talents.

Shortly after Walter left Annapolis, the family removed to 821 Woodland Avenue in Queens, which happens to be in the neighborhood known as Woodhaven. According to the Olswang family’s record in the 1920 census, Jacob was managing the store on his own, while Walter lists his occupation as marine engineer (even though he had been previously discharged) and Arthur is a salesman for a “ladies dresser”.[19]

“Altered Store at Olswang’s Has Big Stock,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 18 Sep 1930, p.4.

“Altered Store at Olswang’s Has Big Stock,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 18 Sep 1930, p.4.

 

Jacob would soon after convince his sons to invest in the business of selling linoleum flooring and carpets. Walter and Arthur became heads of the W. & A. Olswang Company established in 1921.[20] While the Olswang trade primarily focused on carpets, rugs, and floor coverings, the store would stock and sell bedding as well. The brothers signed a lease for a building on 166-02 Jamaica Avenue, located at the southeast corner of Merrick Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue.[21] The business saw growth in first 12 years, becoming one of the “largest specialized stores in Central Queens” and giving president Walter Olswang recognition as a “pioneer merchant” in his community.[22] In 1933, W. & A. Olswang expanded their store and leased out the entire ground floor of their present location at 166-02 Jamaica Avenue.[23]

 

Together, the three Olswang men ran a successful store and were a respected business in the Jamaica neighborhood and throughout the borough. Other family members, like my great-grandfather James Freeman who married Jacob’s daughter Ethel, came in as a contract worker and carpet layer for the Olswangs. Tragedy came to the family when Arthur Olswang died of heart disease in Apr 1942.[24] Perhaps by some kind of bad omen, the W. & A. Olswang Company’s “display house” at 92-24 Merrick Road was destroyed in a fire nine days after Arthur’s death and damages were over $10,000. Fortunately, the main office and store scathed any damage. The house was used to display linoleum and bedding projects.[25]

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.18.06 PM

“$15,000 Lost in Blaze on Merrick Road,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 22 Apr 1942, p.1. Accessed on fultonhistory.org.

Jacob died in 1950 and Walter followed soon after in 1953.[26] I was able to locate articles in local newspapers announcing the estates were settled in the Queens Co. Surrogate Court for Jacob and his wife Margaret, who died December 1939.[27] The flooring business continued with James Freeman who moved to Hartford, Connecticut and started the company Stately Floors.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.20.21 PM

“Walter Olswang, Queens Merchant,” The Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 25 Jun 1953, p.13. Accessed on fultonhistory.org.

Writing this post has allowed me to point out several research directions with which I may be able to discover the exact origins of Jacob Olswang. Researching business associates of an immigrant ancestor can often be very useful because these were often associates from their homeland and were that could be trusted in an environment where they may have been vulnerable. There is a good chance that the associate stated his birthplace in a document and would thus reveal where the “target” ancestor came from. When I put a research case away for a while and then look at it again, it is amazing how a set of fresh eyes can add to your perspective and understanding of the evidence. Details and facets of information that were overlooked before take on new meaning.

 

[1] Ethel M. Freeman death record, (Filed Februrary 16 1987; Died February 10,1987), Seminole County, Florida, Seminole County Public Health Unit, Sanford, Florida.

[2] Tombstone. Interment # 71926, Montefiore Springfield L.I. Cemetery Society, Montefiore Cemetery, Queens, New York.

[3] Jacob Olswang, 1930 US Census, Queens, New York, ED 1153, Roll 1597, page 2A. Accessed on Ancestry.com

[4] Marriage Certificate of John Olswang and Margaret McGrevey (2 Jun 1895), no.247, Christ Church Waterloo, Sephton Parish, West Derby Registration District, Lancashire County. Certified Copy from GRO Office made 28 Jan 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Walter W Olswang, “New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919,” database, Ancestry.com.

[7] In the U.S. Census, Margaret indicates she bore a child that has passed away.

[8] Petition for Naturalization of Jacob Olswang (27 Jun 1904), petition no. 2935, Vol 134: page 214B-215B, Circuit Court, Southern District of New York.

[9] Petition for Naturalization of Jacob Olswang (27 Jun 1904).

[10] Arthur Olswang Certificate of Death, (Died April 10,1942), Queens County, New York City, Bureau of Records, Department of Health, City of New York, Certificate no. 2870.

[11] Ethel M. Freeman death record, (Filed Februrary 16 1987; Died February 10,1987), Seminole County, Florida, Seminole County Public Health Unit, Sanford, Florida.

[12] Jacob Olswang, 1900 US Census, Manhattan, New York County, New York, ED 243, Page 7. Accessed on Ancestry.com

[13] Petition for Naturalization of Jacob Olswang (27 Jun 1904).

[14] Jacob Olswang, 1910 US Census, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, ED 646, Page 14A. Accessed on Ancestry.com

[15] “New Brooklyn Companies,” Article in Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 17 Apr 1914, p.22. Accessed at fultonhistory.org

[16] Jacob Olswang, 1915 New York State Census, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, ED 22, AD 23, p. 69. Accessed on Ancestry.com.

*Entry for Michael Olswang and Sidonia Braun (22 Feb 1911), Manhattan, New York, New York City Municipal Archives, “New York, New York Marriage Records, 1829-1940” database, Familysearch.

[17] Walter W Olswang, “New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919”.

[18] United States Naval Academy, Annual Register of the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD: Seventy-Fifth Academic Year, 1919-1920 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919), 198.; Walter W Olswang, “New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919”.

[19] Jacob Olswang, 1920 US Census, Queens Assembly District 5, Queens County, New York, ED 338, page 19A, Image no. 44. Accessed on Ancestry.com

[20] “Altered Store at Olswang’s Has Big Stock,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 18 Sep 1930, p.4.; “Store Owner Signs Lease,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 29 Jun 1933, p.4. Accessed at fultonhistory.org

[21] “Store Owner Signs Lease,” Long Island Daily Press.

[22] “Altered Store at Olswang’s Has Big Stock,” Long Island Daily Press.; “Store Owner Signs Lease,” Article in Long Island Daily Press.

[23] “Store Owner Signs Lease,” Article in Long Island Daily Press.

[24] Arthur Olswang Certificate of Death.

[25] “$15,000 Lost in Blaze on Merrick Road,” Article in Long Island Daily Press, 22 Apr 1942, p.1. Accessed on fultonhistory.org.

[26] “Walter Olswang, Queens Merchant,” The Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 25 Jun 1953, p.13. Accessed on fultonhistory.org.

[27] “Olswangs to share $50,364 Estate,” Long Island Daily Press, 7 Jun 1940; Estate of Jacob Olswang, Long Island Star Journal, 19 Apr 1950, p.4; State of New York Certificate of Death no. 7217, Department of Health, New York State, Certificate for Margaret Olswang, Queens, New York, 23 Jun 1939.

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Jake Fletcher, “History of the W. & A. Olswang Co. in Jamaica, Queens Co., New York,” Travelogues of a Genealogist, posted 1 Nov 2015. https://fletcherfamilytree.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/waolswangcompany/.

 

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jake Fletcher. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

 

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