Abstract: Tillie Lewis, Money Maven: Gendered Obstacles in Financing a Mega Business

Edie Sparks


Tillie Lewis, often identified in press accounts as "The Tomato Queen," was the first American to can American-grown pomodoro tomatoes. Her Stockton, California, canning company, founded in the 1930s, ultimately offered several labels of canned vegetables and fruits as well as the nation's first line of diet foods. In the 1970s, Tillie Lewis Foods, Inc., was purchased by the Ogden Corporation, and Lewis became the corporation's first female board member. During that decade she appeared most notably in <i>Fortune</i> magazine's feature on "The Ten Highest Ranking Women in Big Business." Yet in spite of her spectacular success, Lewis initially faced many of the challenges common for women who tried to enter the business world as independent entrepreneurs. Chief among these was financing. Unable to obtain bank loans, Lewis was forced to rely instead on the mercy of carefully cultivated private investors, meager personal savings, and even pawned jewelry. This presentation frames Lewis as a businesswoman atypical in her success yet typical in the obstacles she faced. Utilizing company tax records, I will show the ways in which her financial challenges were gendered, revealing the continuing hurdles faced by American women who entered business ownership in the 1930s and 1940s.