Have you ever been driving on the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) and gotten stuck in traffic at the Conshohocken Curve? If you live in or near Philadelphia, the answer is probably yes. If you live in or near Philadelphia and are above the age of 40, I'll ask the same question a different way: Have you ever gotten stuck in traffic around the Lee Tire Curve? The bend in the highway used to be nicknamed after the old Lee Tire Factory, a landmark until the factory closed in 1980 and the building was re-purposed for office space. To learn more about the history of the Lee Tire & Rubber Company, get off the highway and drive to the Conshohocken Historical Society!
J. Ellwood Lee opened his first factory in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania in 1887, but his business at the time wasn't rubber--it was medical supplies. Business was good, and by the start of the 20th century Lee's company had 600 employees, rendering it the largest individual employer in Conshohocken at the time. But Lee foresaw the popularity of automobiles, and recognized a potential in the rubber tire market. In 1905 he merged his medical supply operations with Johnson & Johnson. While his plant in Conshohocken continued to produce medical supplies until 1909, Lee began experimenting with rubber production. In 1912, the Lee Tire and Rubber Company factory opened. J. Elwood Lee died soon after in 1914, but his company flourished and "Lee of Conshohocken" tires became a household name.
After enjoying about half a century of success, Lee of Conshohocken began to decline. A New York firm took over the majority of Lee stocks in the early 1960s, and changed the company name to Lee National Corporation. Soon after, the corporation was sold to Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1965. They restored the original name of Lee Tire and Rubber Company, but the company's factory equipment was outdated and its days were numbered. Lee of Conshohocken went out of business in 1980.
If you'd like to learn more about Lee of Conshohocken, the Conshohocken Historical Society is a short drive from the highway and from the old Lee Tire factory. The historical society has a rich collection of Lee Tire & Rubber Company records, 1890-1937, including materials from J. Ellwood Lee's medical supply company, Lee Rubber & Tire Company, and some subsidiaries. Most of the records relate to finances, but there is a subsidiary's minute book and a small amount of administrative and legal materials as well. The collection is an interesting resource for studying manufacturing history, industrial expansion and corporate-subsidiary relations, the explosion of automobile popularity, and other related topics. So the next time you're sitting in traffic along the Lee Tire Curve, get off the highway and burn rubber to the Conshohocken Historical Society instead!
Welsh, Phillip and Sharon. Conshohocken in Vintage Postcards. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2002. p. 56-57.
The Conshohocken Historical Society is located in the Mary Wood Park House at 120 East 5th Ave., Conshohocken, PA 19428. They can be reached by telephone at 610-828-7869 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.