Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Pope Pius XII received a small group of GIs from the U.S. Occupation Force. Following the benediction. he asked them where they lived in America.

“New York, New York,” answered one.

“Very big … bigger even than Rome,” the Pontiff replied as he turned to another, “And you?”

“California, Los Angeles.”

Smiling, the Pope said “Oh, Hollywood. You must be a movie star!” Then he pointed to a third young man, “And you?”

The latter shrugged, “Oh just a little burg in Pennsylvania no one has heard of.”

“But maybe I have heard of it,” Pius insisted, “what is the name of this ‘little burg’?”

“Conshohocken” was the answer.

“Aha! But I do know,” the Pope responded with a warm smile. “All the world knows ‘Lee of Con­shohocken.'”


Apocryphal? Not to the loyal citizens of that borough on the banks of the Schuylkill. And the old-timers can give good reason why Pius XII knew the answer: the “pop­emobile” in which he rode was a Packard limousine with a special body built by the Der­ham brothers of Rosemont, Pennsylvania. And all Derham bodies rode on tires by Lee of Conshohocken.

Today, the slogan is remem­bered as something from long ago, along with “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” “Hasn’t Scratched Yet” and all those other catchy lines churned out by yesterday’s Madison Avenue mavens of marketing.

But who was Lee of Con­shohocken?

John Ellwood Lee (1860-1914) was born, raised and educated m the Borough of Conshohocken In 1883 with his life savings of $28.35 – plus $400 borrowed from his family as capital, and his mother’s sewing machine as factory equipment he established a business which within ten years was to be an internation­ally renowned manufacturer of surgical goods. In 1910, while still immersed in this enterprise, he started a second, which eventually became one of the ten largest tire and rubber companies in the United States. “By the time he was thirty years old, Lee had amassed a fortune and was tagged as a “Horatio Alger” success story, the boy from the proverbial “poor but honest parents” who climbed from rags to riches. The romanticism is inaccurate and does little justice to his father who rose, if not from rags certainly from poverty, to become a modest success story in his own right.

Thomas and Ann Lee, grandparents of Lee of Conshohocken moved to that town on the outskirts of Phila­delphia in 1838 from New Castle, Delaware. Thomas Lee was an iron worker and there was no more work in New Castle; what little industry had been left after the British razed the town in 1812 had been destroyed by a disastrous fire a few years later. Consho­hocken, which had a popula­tion of less than a thousand, could hardly have seemed El Dorado to the young Lee fam­ily. Housing was simple; most of the few streets were un­paved; the town lacked proper drainage and sewer facilities; there was a large transient­ – and often disorderly – labor population; and taverns out­numbered churches and schools. However, the opening of the Schuylkill Canal in 1824, the debut of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad in 1837 and, most importantly, the coming on stream of James Wood’s water­-powered iron rolling mill in 1832 all spelled hope. To the Lees, as to others, this seemed “a lively manufacturing village.”

Thomas Lee immediately found work at Wood’s rolling mill; that he found no pot of gold forced his son at the age of eleven to begin working alongside him. Thomas contin­ued to work in the rolling mills of J. Wood and Brother for thirty-five years.

The son, Elisha Bradford Lee, despite an inauspicious beginning as a child laborer with little education, was an individual of ambition. Re­corded in the census of 1860 as a twenty-two year old “heater” in the blast furnaces, within ten years he had risen to a supervisory position, married and lived with his wife and five children in a comfortable house in a pleasant neighbor­hood which was ” … up on the hill and provided an excellent view of the Valley … removed from the foul air of the factor­ies.” In 1883, he was elected to the Borough Council, a signifi­cant honor.

Elisha Bradford Lee made sure that his children had the education he lacked, and his oldest, John Ellwood Lee, graduated from Conshohocken High School in 1879. (About this time, for reasons unknown, both father and son dropped their first names, becoming known respectively as Bradford Lee and J. Ellwood Lee.)

As mysterious as the drop­ping of “John” is why Ellwood did not go to work for the rolling mills as his father had done. It may have been that Bradford Lee saw no future for his son there or it may have been on the advice of family friend and Sunday School teacher. Charles Heber Clark. A newspaperman by vocation, under the pen name “Max Adeler,” a noted humorist, Clark befriended Ellwood, helped him to obtain his first job. and later rose to promi­nence as an able, astute busi­ness executive and administrator in Lee’s later enterprises.

In 1882, Ellwood Lee mar­ried Jennie W. Cleaver, the youngest daughter of widow at whose house he had been boarding. The marriage was a good one for Lee. The Win his wife’s name stood for Wood, a family of both money and power. In a doctoral disserta­tion written nearly a century later, Richard Wooten noted that, “Lee’s story represents the American success story. He possessed the requisite amount of entrepreneurial talent and business acumen. There is no doubt, however, that his marriage to the grand­daughter of James Wood helped his career. In a commu­nity in which both banks were controlled by relatives of your wife’s family, access to capital had to be easier than if you happened to be just anyone off the street with thirty dollars and an idea.”

Doubtlessly true. On the other hand, when Lee did seek additional capital he had behind him an impressive series of successes that any banker – relative or total stranger – would have been eager to open his door. Young Ellwood had, among other attributes, two requisites for successful entrepreneurship: confidence and timing.

In 1883, just a little more than a year after his marriage, Lee made a daring move. Thanks to Charles H. Clark, he had found employment with the surgical supply manufacturing company of William Snowden in Philadelphia; it was a secure position with a modestly successful firm. But it seemed to Lee that the op­portunities in the field were far greater than Snowden real­ized. A whole new world for surgical goods was opening.

A revolution in surgery and medicine followed Joseph Lister’s proving beyond doubt the validity of Pasteur’s theory that bacteria caused infection, then the principal cause of death following surgery. And it was only ten years before Lister’s breakthrough that the residents of Lancaster County and others in the “Pennsylva­nia Dutch” region were receiv­ing advice, including that which appeared in a medical guide, Sympathetischer Wunder­-Doktor, written by J.J. Loch­mann. According to John Scarborough, author of Folklore and Folk Medicines, “Lochmann recommended a salve of grated onion and sweet oil for proud flesh. He offered a long list of simple remedies for the tooth­ache: boil betony and white ginger in wine, or boil helle­bore root. In vinegar, or boil violets in wine, or boil the bark of the maple tree in vinegar. The last was to be used as a rinse; the others were to be held in the mouth, warm. Sweet oil soaked in oil was also recommended, but it was to be placed in the outer ear on the painful side. Lochmann had a simple way of arousing a victim out of an epileptic fit: take off his shoe and hold the inside of it to the victim’s nose.”

Even less inviting was an­other of Lochmann’s toothache remedies: “Take your own urine in your mouth in the mornings, warm, on an empty stomach.”

Medical records give no hint of the success or failure of these prescribed medications, but since toothaches were rarely fatal and epileptics em­erged from seizures without assistance, the mortality fig­ures for the county were prob­ably not pushed skywards by the magic Wunder­-Doktor. Of course, the citations from Lochmann’s book represent exaggerated cases of nine­teenth century medical igno­rance. Nonetheless, they remain evidence that much medical knowledge was based on folklore; few would deny that the science of medicine has advanced more in the past one hundred years than it had in the previous two thousand. As physicians came to know more about the need for asep­sis, the demand for strict qual­ity control, uniformity of product and sterility in phar­maceuticals and surgical goods, the death knell sounded tor the day of the small dispensing chemists.

With many of the older, smaller houses being bought out by the larger and more progressive companies, others gave up the manufacturing aspects of their businesses to concentrate on developing as retail pharmacies. The tradi­tional apothecary’s world had undergone a radical transfor­mation.

Emboldened by the knowl­edge he had acquired while working for Snowden, and blessed with complete self­-confidence in his own abilities, Ellwood quit his job in Phila­delphia and in 1873 founded the J. Ellwood Lee Company, manufacturing chemists. His “plant” was the attic of the family house at Seventh Ave­nue below Fayette Street, a modest beginning for an un­dertaking which was to bring both great economic returns and world fame to Consho­hocken.

A steady stream of ban­dages, ligatures and other surgical goods began to flow from Lee’s residential factory. In less than a year, demand had become so great that Lee erected a two-story wood frame annex to increase the manufacturing area. Addi­tional employees were hired and the product line was in­creased. An early invention by Lee, a metallic splint for bro­ken limbs, became an instant success.

By all accounts, Lee was a modest, as well as a practical person, with an inventive mind which took pleasure in problem solving. Interested in every aspect of his burgeoning business, he concerned him­self with research, engineer­ing, production. personnel, marketing, even the design and printing of the company’s labels and sales pieces. Ac­cording to a former employee, “He was an excellent em­ployer. He was paternalistic, friendly and wandered around all the departments talking to the employee, giving and taking ideas. He took a per­sonal interest in every detail of every job and in every person working for the company.” This recollection was of the period when the J. Ellwood Lee Company was already big business. with employees numbering in tens of hun­dreds rather than in dozens.

In a few years, lee’s busi­ness had increased to sizable proportions, and greater capi­talization and still larger and better facilities were required if growth was to continue. In 1888, five years after its found­ing, the J. Ellwood Lee Co. was incorporated with capital stock of $75,000, still a small sum but enormous compared to the original investment of several hundred dollars. The early help given by Charles Heber Clark to the founder’s career was now richly rewarded as he was named president of the corporation. Lee himself took on the posts of treasurer, secretary and general manager. Other founding members of the newly incorporated establishment were Charles Lukens, vice president and director; and Alan Wood Jr., Howard Wood, and Conrad Lee (Ellwood’s younger brother), directors.

In 1890, the capital was again increased – this time to $150,000 – and by 1894 the growth was so rapid that a further increase to $500,000 was necessary. Some twenty years after its founding, the company’s plant consisted of seventeen buildings with about five acres of floor space and a work force of five hundred. This growth was stimulated in part by the company’s products winning five gold medals – against competition from the world over – at the great 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

During the same year, work was begun on “a handsome stone mansion for J. Ellwood Lee at Eight Ave. and Fayette St. The mansion when finished will be one of the largest and handsomest in the borough.” But the year also had great sadness for the close-knit Lee family, as the older daughter, Mary Cleaver Lee, died at the age of eight and the oldest son, J. Ellwood, Jr., nearly died of the same illness. A few years later, they lost their second son, Bradford Herbert. Elsie and Ellwood, Jr., were the only two children to survive their father.

Ellwood and Jennie Lee seemed dissimilar in every way. He was reserved, quiet, soft-spoken and a thoughtful man, conservative in dress, formal in manner, of even disposition. She on the other hand “spoke her mind, in fact was very outspoken;” she loved parties, clothes and the arts. Both enjoyed travel, but Ellwood was so preoccupied with his work that often Jennie traveled alone or with her sister and other family members. They were popular in their hometown and entertained often at Leeland, the new “mansion.” Jennie had a parrot whose language was often a source of embarrassment to guests, if not to Jennie. She maintained that the bird had learned its words from workers on a street project in front of the house, but at least one grandchild – who remembers her well – is not convinced. In any case, she made no effort to silence the bird, asserting that free speech belonged to parrots as well as to humans.

Dorothea Staley, a Conshohocken historian, believes that the Lee plant encouraged an equal opportunity program for women which presaged the Women’s Liberation movement. Female employees advanced farther than was then customary and many departments were supervised by women. The company’s early payroll ledgers evidence a remarkable equality between the sexes. Some have conjectured that this fair treatment of women may not have been entirely Ellwood’s idea, but reflected that of the lively and fiercely independent Jennie.

The company’s other modern management techniques included open communication between employees and supervisors, receptiveness to new ways of doing things and a concern for employee health, including a non-smoking rule, which did not extend to chewing tobacco. One former employee vividly recalls the endless array of shiny spittoons on every floor and in every office. The firm also encouraged fitness programs and sponsored various team sports, including baseball, bowling and golf. Often the facilities were provided on the grounds of Lee’s own home.

Lee was an excellent swimmer, golfer and bowler. A dedicated, if not overzealous, worker, he still found time not only for sports but for community service. He was on the school board, served on the vestry of Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, was a delegate to the Republican Convention which nominated Theodore Roosevelt for the presidency, like his father was a member the board of the Borough Council, and belonged to a number of social and service clubs and organizations. According to a contemporary account, “he has not sought or held office … his business absorbing his attention to the exclusion of such matters. He is always alert to the interests of Conshohocken, and ever ready to do what he can to promote the welfare of the community of which he is an honored member.”

Granted hyperbolic praise usually accorded to industrial leaders of the era, it was not an overblown recital of Lee’s intense devotion to his hometown, which in fact, he proved some years later when the pharmaceutical operations had to be transferred to New Brunswick, New Jersey. For J. Ellwood Lee and his company, it was a small, small world.

In 1886, just three years after Lee set out on his own, Robert Wood Johnson and his two brothers, James and Edward Mead Johnson, organized a medical products company in New Brunswick, which they had chartered under the name of Johnson & Johnson.

Many similarities existed between this company and the J. Ellwood Lee Company. Both founders, Robert W. Johnson and J. Ellwood Lee, were Pennsylvanians by birth; both were elder brother; neither had gone beyond high school; both had begun their business careers as apprentices in the drug field; both were dissatisfied with how the business was being handled; both started their own firms with practically no capital. And both were family concerns: Johnson & Johnson from the beginning, J. Ellwood Lee Company later, when Ellwood’s father and brother joined it. Both Johnson & Johnson and JELCO, the trademark name by which J. Ellwood Lee Co. came to be known, were well ahead of their competitors and their times in adherence to quality control. new products, mod­em management and market­ing techniques, as well as good labor and customer relations. Each company enjoyed almost immediate success and ex­traordinarily rapid growth, both from within and by the acquisition of competitors.

At some point in the forma­tive years of their respective companies, Lee and Robert Johnson met, possibly at the Columbian Exposition. The place and year have been Jost, but what matters is that these two men, who were quite dissimilar in personality, ap­parently took an instant liking to each other and began a friendship which was to last Lee’s lifetime. Despite their mutually cordial feelings, both men were achievers and com­petitors. Soon their companies were vying for top place in the market. In a splendid history of Johnson & Johnson, Law­rence G. Foster wrote: “Lee’s company had become a major factor in the drug trade, and for some time had been cut­ting prices sharply. Johnson wrote to Lee: ‘If you follow the start you have made, in a short time you will be giving away goods and paying people to take them. When you get tired of this fun, come down to Cape May, take a bath and cool off.'”

Whether Ellwood ever made it to Cape May is moot. yet wheels had begun to turn and, in 1905, in a friendly transaction, Johnson & John­son acquired J. Ellwood Lee Company in exchange for J & J stock. The acquisition made the latter indisputably the leading producer of pharma­ceuticals and professional products in the United States. It also marked a major step forward, rather than corporate demise, for J. Ellwood Lee. He was named executive vice president and a director of J & J, and his old friend Charles H. Clark and Frank R. Jones, both JELCO directors, also went on the board of the parent company. Their merger went smoothly, as did opera­tions thereafter. Both J & J and its new subsidiary grew and prospered, each continuing to operate independently in many matters and the plant in Conshohocken functioning just as it had before.

In 1910, five years after the merger, the ever-inquisitive Lee became fascinated by the phenomenal growth of auto­mobiling throughout the world. Problems abounded for the motorist: dreadful roads, undependable engines and tires which had to be repaired or changed almost as often as fuel had to be added. And it was here that Lee felt great improvements could be made by utilizing the knowledge he had acquired of rubber and its characteristics in the manufac­ture of such goods as surgical tubing, trusses, adhesive plas­ters and gloves. He had the know-how, the engineers and the rubber sources; all he lacked was a plant.

About this time J & J de­cided it would make for a more efficient operation if the Lee manufacturing capabilities in Conshohocken were moved and combined with J & J surgi­cal lines production in New Brunswick. This transfer, coin­ciding with the building of a block-long, multi-storied tire factory in Spring Mill, on the outskirts of Conshohocken, not only assured the faithful Lee employees of continued work but offered hundreds of new job opportunities. The new facilities occupied a 26- acre site and were considered outstanding in every detail.

A new tire company had been born, Lee Tire & Rubber Co. of Conshohocken. The tires were first called JELCO, the trademark which appeared on the pharmaceutical sup­plies. However, Henry Ford, a friend, cautioned Lee that he could not imagine people wanting to ride on tires which sounded as if they were made of jelly. Quick to heed advice, Lee changed the name to “Lee of Conshohocken,” which soon became world famous.

Stories abound that J. Ellwood Lee became so infatu­ated with automobiles that he tried to build one. If he did, it was one of his few failures because nothing further was ever heard about it.

One failure, this verifiable, occurred when Lee, ever the experimenter, believed that cotton could be grown in Pennsylvania. If he could prove this, both Lee Tire & Rubber and Johnson & John­son would be able to furnish their ever-mounting demands for this product from their own backyard, saving the cost of shipment and the concern about fluctuating cotton fu­tures. In 1913 he developed an experimental cotton plantation on two and a half acres near the tire plant. A major prob­lem arose as the cotton blossomed but the bolls did not mature. This did not stop J. Ellwood Lee. Research told him that cotton had been grown in Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, and he remain convinced that if the colonists could grow it, so could he! Agriculturists were hired, special machines de­signed to ripen the immature bolls were imported, and a task force from all sectors of the cotton industry was assem­bled to lend expertise to the project. Before long, Lee jubi­lantly announced that the new machines were processing up to eight tons of cotton bolls a day. But something hap­pened … Whether it was the vagaries of weather, no one seems to remember. One day the experts all went home; the machinery was dismantled; there were no more announce­ments. A noble experiment had failed.

Far more successful were the results of Lee’s research of vanadium, whose strengths as an alloying agent were just being realized. By adding vanadium to a special rubber mix, Lee found that he could produce a tire twice as durable and puncture-resistant as those on the market. These first “Puncture-Proof Tires by Lee of Conshohocken” were an immediate success with the market and were advertised as “The Tire that Smiles at the Miles.”

Once again, the local boy had made good.

J. Ellwood Lee had been working at a pace which wor­ried his doctors, as well as his family, because of an ailment diagnosed as a “non-serious” heart condition. In the spring of 1914, he and Jennie planned a trip to Europe, but at the last minute, he found the work demands on him were too heavy to escape, and she went alone. On the evening of April 8, following a quiet dinner with family members, Lee died of a heart attack. His accomplishments had been notable; the promise of still greater successes had never been brighter. He was only 53.

Lee’s death made headline news and he was eulogized in America and abroad. He had been a modest, unassuming person and the tribute he would most appreciate is being given by the people of Con­shohocken, three-quarters of a century after his passing.

Under the aegis of Joseph P. Collins, president of the Con­shohocken Historical Society, a committee of townspeople has been formed to raise funds for the restoration of Leeland. Now the Borough Hall, it was the Lee residence from the time he built it in 1893 until the death of his widow in 1943. To the surprise of no one in Consho­hocken, the project already seems assured of success­ – quite in keeping with the story of the man it honors: J. Ellwood Lee, the local boy that made good.


For Further Reading

Foster, Lawrence G. A Company that Cares: One Hundred Year Illustrated History of Johnson & Johnson. New Brunswick, N. J.: Johnson & Johnson, 1986.

Roberts, Ellwood. Historical Annals of Montgomery County. New York: T.S. Benham and Company, 1904.

Scarborough, John. Folklore and Folk Medicines. Madsion, Wis.: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, 1987.

Sonnedecker, Glenn. History of Pharmacy. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1976.

Staley, Dorothea. Biography of J. Ellwood Lee. Conshohocken, Pa.: Conshohocken Historical Society, 1987.


The author and editor with to acknowledge the assistance of the Conshohocken Historical Society, especially its president, Joseph P. Collins, for the identification and
lending of illustrations for this piece.


Kershaw Burbank of Delray Beach, Florida, lived for a number of years in Devon. Following graduation from Yale University, he was associated with Metro­-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Twenti­eth Century-Fox Film Corporation and the Walt Disney Studios. In addition to serving as vice presi­dent of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, he also acted as Vice president and corporate secretary of Educational Broadcasting Cor­poration (WNET) of New York; advisor on public affairs to the Rockefeller family and associates; consultant to Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc., and Palisades Interstate Park Commission; and director of public information for Colonial Williamsburg. He is also a trustee of the Elsie Lee Garthwaite Memorial Founda­tion. Rosemont. The author is currently a freelance writer whose interests include the history of southeastern Pennsylvania.