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Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen

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Have you heard about Tillie Lewis, the Tomato Queen? Born to a poor, Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1901, Tillie was a leading entrepreneur and businesswoman in the United States and maintained her headquarters right here in San Joaquin County.

After her marriage to a wholesale grocer ended in the mid-1920s, she began a relationship with Italian industrialist Florindo del Gaizo, a tomato baron from Florence. Together, they opened a stock brokerage in Manhattan. After the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff act led to a 50 percent tax on Italian imports, Tillie launched a major domestic cannery venture in Stockton to fill the market niche. After persuading local growers to experiment with San Marzano tomatoes, she convinced Pacific Can Company to build a cannery near the new Port of Stockton in 1935, which she promptly purchased. The Flotill Foods Corporation, co-owned by del Gaizo, was a smashing success. By 1940, San Joaquin County grew more tomatoes than any other county in the United States. 

Historical events in the 20th century benefited Tillie’s success; Flotill Foods successfully acquired military contracts and became the U.S.’s largest supplier of Army C-rations during WWII and the Korean War. In line with changing trends in health, Tillie stayed ahead of the curve by launching one of the first documented low-calorie diets in Tasti-Diet Foods, which leveraged saccharin and protein to create a sense of fullness. By 1954, the diet had been endorsed by the American Society of Physicians and was available at over 800 grocery outlets around the country. Tillie cultivated a powerful narrative of having struggled with her weight and developing a solution that could be shared publicly. 

Perennially innovative, Tillie was a trailblazer in the domain of equal rights in employment practices. Having personally experienced discrimination as a Jewish woman in New York City, Tillie was one of the first major private employers in California to hire people of color on an equal-pay basis with whites in the 1930s. In 1941, she signed what she called the “first full union contract in the history of agricultural labor in the United States,” which allowed her firm to avoid labor strikes for decades.  

A true hero in San Joaquin County, Tillie Lewis also was a  champion for working people. A dominant fixture in Stockton’s public life in the mid-20th century, Tillie is honored today with a theater at San Joaquin Delta College and with Tillie Lewis Drive near the Port of Stockton. To learn more about Tillie, visit her page at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, today.

Story and Photos Courtesy of San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum