Tillie Lewis opens cannery for American-grown Italian tomatoes
Tillie Lewis, born Myrtle Ehrlich, in Brooklyn, NY, on July 13, 1901, left high school after one year to work in a wholesale grocery. Noticing the high demand for imported cans of Italian tomatoes, she formed the idea of growing the same variety domestically. Discouraged by agriculture specialists at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, who told her it could not be done, Lewis moved on to other things, studying business and working briefly on Wall Street.
However, Lewis returned to her tomato-growing idea in 1934, when the federal government raised the tariff on imported tomato products by 50%. Already on her way to Italy for a vacation, Lewis met an Italian exporter, Florindo del Gaizo, worried about losing his American customers. Lewis convinced him that Italian tomatoes could be grown in California, and they combined parts of their first names to create Flotill Products Inc. On July 13, 1935, her 34th birthday, Lewis opened the first Flotill cannery in Stockton, California. Two years later, when del Gaizo died, Lewis bought out his share of the business. Operating the first cannery owned by a woman, by 1940, she had made San Joaquin County the top tomato-producing county in the United States.
In addition to tomatoes, Lewis's Flotill Products, Inc., canned other fruits and vegetables, baby food, and frozen juices; during the Second World War, the company also became the largest producer of C-rations for the U.S. Army. By 1951, Flotill Products, later known as Tillie Lewis Foods, Inc., was earning $30 million per year, making it one of the five largest canning companies in the country. In the same year, Lewis was named "businesswoman of the year" by the Associated Press. In 1952, the company introduced a line of diet foods using low-calorie sweeteners and known as Tasti-Diet. Tillie Lewis Foods was eventually bought by the Ogden Corporation, which made Lewis one of its directors. Lewis died in 1977, but the Italian pomodora tomatoes she introduced to the U.S. are still a staple of American agriculture.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1951, September 11, 1952, May 7, 1961, May 3, 1977; New York Times, May 2, 1977.