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Tillie Lewis, 1896-1977

Tillie Lewis in 1941 Chrysler 

Tillie Lewis in 1941 Chrysler 

Courtesy San Joaquin Historical Society and Museum

Tomatoes gave Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis her start, but dieting made her rich. Myrtle Ehrlich changed her name to Tillie at an early age and continued to reinvent herself throughout her life. Opening a cannery, the media-savvy entrepreneur developed a nationwide brand: Tasti-Diet. Despite her spectacular success, the California business community only grudgingly accepted her. Behind her back they often spoke of her in slurs against her gender and Jewish ethnicity.

Tillie Ehrlich (bottom right) and family, around 1900. 

Tillie Ehrlich (bottom right) and family, around 1900. 

Courtesy of Kyle Wood

 

Born to a poor Jewish immigrant family, Tillie Ehrlich sought a different life. She escaped her parents’ control with a loveless marriage of convenience. While married to Louis Weisberg, the young entrepreneur worked hard in their small grocery store but also carried on a romantic and business relationship with Italian food importer Florindo del Gaizo (21 years her senior). During the roaring twenties, she and del Gaizo opened a stock brokerage.

Passage of the 1930 Smoot Hawley tariff provided Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis a business opportunity. To avoid the 50% tariff on the canned tomatoes that the del Gaizo family exported to the United States, they gave her expertise, money, and a 15% share in the new cannery, Flotill, that she founded for them in Stockton, California. In 1937, after the death of Florindo, she bought out the del Gaizos’ shares. 

Flotill Cannery, 1935

Flotill Cannery, 1935

Courtesy of Kyle Wood

Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis was driven by a combination of altruism and pragmatism. She was known for her commitment to hiring a diverse workforce. Of course, women, the elderly, and people of color were paid less which kept her operating costs down.

Flotill cannery line, 1935 

Flotill cannery line, 1935 

Courtesy of Haggin Museum

Tillie Lewis Sweetnin bottle about 1970

Tillie Lewis Sweetnin bottle about 1970

 

Wildly successful, the flamboyant Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis expected much of herself and others. She launched the Tasti-Diet brand in 1951, telling Americans “Two out of every five people should be on a diet.” The nation ate it up. Starring in most of the promotional ads, Lewis became famous and changed Flotill to Tillie Lewis Foods. She lived a lavish life, giving many presents to friends and family. Never close to anyone, she died alone in the hospital.

 

Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis lived by several gender-based axioms including: 

  1. A woman has to be five times as good as a man to get one-fifth the recognition. 
  2. Never ask a man “Do you understand?” 
  3. If a man makes a pass, don’t recognize it.  
  4. Never accept an inappropriate romantic invitation in the workplace. 
  5. Be a good listener but a short answerer. 
  6. Finger pointing, finding blame, is a waste of time. 
Tillie Lewis in her office, 1942

Tillie Lewis in her office, 1942

Courtesy of University of Holt-Atherton Special Collections Department, University of the Pacific Library

Watch a video to learn more about Tillie Lewis