Monday, January 2, 2012

The Tasti-Diet Tomato Queen

1954 ad, big version here
Tillie Lewis (1904-77) - born Myrtle Ehrlich - was a business tycoon and diet diva who was named National Business Woman of the Year in 1951. She learned the food business from her grocer husband, and after they divorced she moved to Stockton, California and began her own business of importing pomodoro tomatoes to the US, with the help of a partner. She paid off her business partner by 1937 and became full owner of the company, Flotill Foods. She expanded the business to include canned foods, and Flotill supplied most of the canned goods sent to US troops during the Korean War.

By the early 1950s, Tillie was a millionaire (by 1971 annual sales of Tillie Lewis Foods were more than $90 million a year). A Time article in 1951 called  Tillie "the world's tomato queen" and quoted her as protesting the St. Regis Hotel in New York charging her a dollar for 2 tomatoes. "You tell Vincent Astor that these tomatoes cost him no more than 5 cents apiece, that's 1000% profit," she snapped to the waiter. I'm not sure why she ordered 2 tomatoes on a tray, though. Maybe it was for some kind of diet dish.

Oh, there's the lead-in to the point of this post. I knew it was in here somewhere. Anyway, in the early 1950s Tillie Lewis started her own line of diet products with the slightly dubious name Tasti-Diet Foods. These were about the earliest artificially sweetened products ever.Saccharin was involved, I guess. Lots and lots of it - in the "chocolatey topping," in the Dietetic Peaches, and probably even in that Whipped Diet Dressing that some asparagus have been trapped under.

The Tasti-Diet line was quite successful. The Vanderbilt Hotel in new York even created a special Tasti-Diet menu in 1953 and by the time this ad came out in 1954 the foods were being sold all across the US.

The ad makes it sound like Lewis was made famous by going on a diet and that was why she was America's First Woman of Foods. Nary a mention of her canny business sense or her canning empire! That is Tillie in the black dress, white apron and triple strand of pearls, showing some other normal-weight ladies her canned fruit. Interestingly, according to Carolyn Thomas de la Pena in her book about artificial sweeteners, Empty Pleasures,* Tillie Lewis had actually never been overweight or had to diet. She was just really, really good at selling her products.

*There is a whole lot more about Tillie and the Tasti-Diet line in this book, which I recommend!


DearHelenHartman said...

Tillie and the Tasti Diet Line sounds like a very preachy kids book. I'd read it, but only so I could sit and roll my eyes (I need to stay in practice).

Kath Lockett said...

Fascinating stuff - a woman ahead of her time and presumably with an ex-husband not smart enough to get some lawyers in and try and claim some of her current and future earnings...

....did she have children? Any third generation Paris Hilton-of-tinned-foods gracing the D-listed pages?

Anonymous said...

The owner has disabled downloading of their photos. I won't bother to come back to your blog if you keep posting non-downloadable photos.