TV Dinners: The Golden Years

The TV Dinner An American Icon

What could be more American than sitting in front of the flickering television set with the warm glow back-lit against the wall from the walnut incased picture tube? Then sitting with a clanky metal TV tray in front of you, and sitting on top of that tray was the familiar tinfoil pressed 4 sectioned time saver... the TV dinner!

For Americans of the 1950's and 1960's generation the very words "TV dinners" conjour up memory flash-backs in that secret part of the brain that quietly call out for a simpler time. A time when freezers and televisions were becoming more common place; and frozen compartmentalized foil pressed trays of food felt like something straight out of Buck Rogers. The very words TV dinner have not been used to describe a frozen dinner in decades, but stamped somewhere onto the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere, is the impression of a silver tray with frozen in the middle still mashed potatoes, ice-cold in the center fried chicken, and some burnt around the edges, yet still doughy in the middle brownie-type thingy.

Whether you liked them, loved them, or even if you rarely ate them... you still remember them. The company.. er, culprit C.A. Swanson & Sons (not related to our own C.A.) used “TV Dinner” as a brand name for just about ten years after they introduced the frozen dinners in 1953. Much like how we use "kleenex" to describe facial tissues today, the same can be said for the the descriptive term used for all brands of frozen meals today. I still notice people picking up a frozen brand meal and calling it a TV dinner, the title as stuck.

For those of you at home, who are still unsure what I am waxing nostalgic about .."a TV Dinner is a manufactured meal purchased frozen from a food market and designed to be heated up at home in a “no fuss no mess no work” context. The original TV Dinners were sold in aluminum trays with separate compartments for a meat, a starch and a vegetable: fried chicken with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, for example, or the original turkey (on a bed of stuffing) with peas and potatoes. Later TV Dinners added a fourth compartment for a small desert item or cake."  ...and there you have it.

Frozen Dinners... The Time Saving, and Inexpensive Way To Feed The Family...

Hey, Believe What You Want Too.. OK?

Many companies around that time tried to market pre-manufactured meals, and many to this day have tried to get credit of the idea... but it was Swanson that found itself in the right place at the right time. The good folks at Swanson really only expected to sell a few thousand of these frozen culinary delights that first year. What had really happened in 1953 was something the changed the face of family dinner at the dining room table forever... Swanson sold ten million the first year! The TV Dinner name was pure lightning in a bottle for a public that was just beginning to become a nation of addicted to the nightly television ritual. The disposable metal tray fit nicely on the folding TV trays. Best of all for Mom, the entire dinner process, from shopping to cooking to cleanup, became simplified. The trend to avoid cooking at home, which continues in the United States today, just received one of its first major shoves.

These convenient, already made meals were a real time saver, in the atomic family age, No muss, no fuss just pop one of these fine entrees in your conventional oven, and PRESTO... a warm hearty meal for one in aamazingly quick 40 minutes (including pre-heating).

Just How Famous Is That Funny Metal Tray?

In 1987, the 1955 TV Dinner tray was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s treasury of American artifacts. Where it shares residence in the museum with such iconic milestones as the first Kodak film camera of 1888, a 1937 pair of nylon stockings, an 1879 Edison lightbulb, an original nineteenth century pair of Levi Strauss jeans, and a set of Crayola crayons from 1903. There are very few people who would question the Smithsonian’s judgment in immortalizing the TV Dinner as an American icon. In 1999, Gerry Thomas, the Swanson marketer often credited as the inventor of TV Dinners, had the honor of putting his handprints, as well as an imprint of a three-compartment TV Dinner tray, in the cement of the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside Mann’s Chinese Theater.

SWANSON TV DINNERS

TV Dinning History

As One Story Goes...

Gerald Thomas, a C.A. Swanson & Sons executive, had a major logistics  problem... He was stuck with 270 tons of unsold Thanksgiving turkeys.

"After Thanksgiving, Swanson had ten refrigerated railroad cars -- each containing 520,000 pounds of unsold turkeys -- going back and forth across the country in refrigerated railroad box cars, because there was not enough storage in warehouses. We were challenged to come up with a way to get rid of the turkeys," Thomas recalled.

Suddenly Gerald had a breakthrough idea... to use the trays that airlines use for food service....  And from that ...the TV dinner was born.

The first production order was for 5,000 dinners, which was a big gamble at the time. Swanson hired about two dozen women who used ice cream scoops to start filling the trays. Obviously, due to the above turkey incident story... the first TV dinners featured turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes. It cost 98 cents and came in a box resembling a TV.

The 5,000 dinners proved to be a way off the mark. Swanson ended up selling 10,000,000 TV dinners that first year.

As a side note, most folks didn't own freezers back then, so the dinners were bought and prepared the very same day.

A frozen fried chicken dinner was introduced in 1955. Turkey is still the most popular Swanson TV dinner, except in Fort Worth-Dallas, where fried chicken is the favorite. I have know idea why.. maybe you should ask a Texan (there are one or two around)

In 1962 Swanson stopped calling them TV Dinners... But America has not. 

Swanson didn't add the fourth divided section on the foil tray for dessert until 1960...before that no dessert was served in a TV dinner. The earliest desserts were fruit cobblers and brownies... Which I think is still pretty much status quo even today, with exception of pudding. 

Swanson's Marketing Strategy

The Swanson Company wisely targeted the Frozen TV dinner to a new grow segment of the public market ... the television watcher. Swanson's early packaging even featured a picture of a TV set. Television as a new medium began growing wildly in the United States in the early 1950s as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started giving broadcasting licenses to many city's local stations. By 1955, half of all American homes had a television set. Swanson's convenient pre-cooked TV dinner allowed people to eat a hot meal together without anyone having to miss his or her favorite television show.

Swanson's TV Dinners 1970s

Gerald Thomas

Gerald Thomas was a salesman for C.A. Swanson and Sons Omaha, in late 1954 when he had the idea of packaging frozen meals in a divided tray. He recalled that the inspiration came when he was visiting a distributor,and saw a metal tray. He was told it was in development for an experiment in hot meals on airliners.

"It's a pleasure being identified as the person who did this because it changed the way people live," he said in 1999. "It's part of the fabric of our society. It was just a single compartment tray with foil...I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

Gerald said he came up with a three-compartment tray, because he had spent 5 years in military service and the tray reminded him of a "mess kit" Thomas commented, "You could never tell what you were eating because it was all mixed together".

He claims to thought of America's new interest in television,  and he added: "I figured if you could borrow from that, maybe you could get some attention. I think the name made all the difference in the world." he further commented, "We had the TV screen and the knobs pictured on the package. That was the real start of marketing,"

Ten million dinners were sold in the first year of national distribution. Gerald further meantioned humorously how Swanson's drew "hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did."

Thomas said for his idea the company boosted up his salary to $300 a month and gave him a $1000 bonus."I didn't complain. A thousand dollars was a lot of money back then," he said.

However, Gerald didn't want to ever call himself the father of the TV dinner."I really didn't invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name and developed some unique packaging," he said in the 1999 interview. "If I'm the father of the TV dinner, who's the mother? I think it's ludicrous."

After the Campbell Soup Company acquired Swanson in 1955, Thomas became a sales manager, then marketing manager and director of marketing and sales. He left the company after suffering a heart attack. He went on to manage an art gallery in Arizona.

...Until his passing.

Libbyland TV Dinners Commercial (1970's)

The TV Dinner Conspiracy

Like many good ideas and inventions there so many people and companies that want credit for the product. The story of the development of the TV dinner is no exception. Many people and companies played a role in the development of the concept of a complete meal that needed only to be reheated before eating. The invention of the TV dinner has been laid claim to at least three different sources, Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc.

Maxson Food Systems, Inc. manufactured the earliest complete frozen meal in 1945. Maxson manufactured “Strato-Plates” – complete meals that were reheated on the plane for military and civilian airline passengers. The meals consisted of a basic three-part entree of meat, vegetable and potato, each housed in its own separate compartment on a plastic plate. However, due to financial reasons and the death of their founder, Maxson frozen meals never went to the retail market. Some feel that Maxson’s product does not qualify as the true TV dinner, since it was consumed on an airplane rather than in the family's homes.

Following at the heels of Maxson Foods was Jack Fisher's FridgiDinners. In the late 1940s FridgiDinners sold frozen dinners to bars and taverns. The frozen dinners did not take off, but that was... until the Bernstein brothers came onto the scene.

In 1949, Albert and Meyer Bernstein organized Frozen Dinners, Inc., which packaged frozen dinners on aluminum trays with three compartments. They sold them under the "One-Eyed Eskimo" label, and only to the Pittsburgh area. By 1950, the company had produced over 400,000 frozen dinners. Demand continuted to grow, and in 1952 the Bernstein brothers formed the Quaker State Food Corporation. They expanded distribution to markets east of the Mississippi. By 1954, Quaker State Foods had produced and sold over 2,500,000 frozen dinners!

The concept really took hold in 1954 when Swanson’s frozen meals appeared. Swanson was a well-known brand that people recognized, and Swanson launched a massive advertising campaign for their product. They also coined the phrase "TV Dinner", which helped to transform their frozen meals into the cultural icon many of us know and love.

But this is where different stories start to happen. Until recently, the most widely credited individual as the inventor of the TV dinner was Gerald Thomas, a salesman for C.A. Swanson & Son in 1953. Even, the American Frozen Food Institute honored him in their "Frozen Food Hall of Fame" ...Yes, there is an Americian Frozen Food Institute and a Frozen Food Hall of Fame... no lie...I can't make that kind of thing up... its just cruel, or ...could I?

Anyway as far as theAFFI and FFHOF is concerned Gerald Thomas is the inventor of the TV dinner. But lately, Gerald's role as the inventor is now being disputed.

Plot thickener,  Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist who was also working for the Swanson brothers at that time, claims that it was the Swanson brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, who came up with the concept of the TV dinner, while their marketing and advertising teams developed the name and design of the product. Betty also worked on the project, taking on the technical challenge of composing a dinner in which all the ingredients took the same amount of time to cook, also known as, synchronization.

So who really invented the TV dinner? It depends on your definition. One thing is for sure, though: the first company to use the name and successfully market the TV Dinner was Swanson.

The Hamsters performing ZZTops "TV Dinners"

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Comments 31 comments

Laughing Mom profile image

Laughing Mom 7 years ago

More fun memories!!

I remember being excited when they finally came out with microwavable ones. I guess that was the beginning of the end for the metal trays.....

Great idea for a hub, St. James! Even the videos were great!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Hiya Laughing Mom, I thought about adding in the waveable meals, but decided to keep it retro.


k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

I can remember what a treat it was to have TV Dinners! We didn't have them very often, so they were special. I had a lot of fun reading the history!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

I like that you have good memories associated with TV dinners Kari...It amazes me how the most simplest of things can trigger a moment in life.


MindField profile image

MindField 7 years ago from Portland, Oregon

Really, I think TV dinners are pretty terrible  - but right now what I wouldn't give for a Swanson's fried chicken dinner! Naughty, St. James, for tempting me. ;-)


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Personally MindField, I was always a fan of the mashed potatoes, not so much the meat. Either way it's more of the memories associated with the TV dinner, than the meal itself.


k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

Definitely the memories! It's not the same for my kids. We keep frozen food around all the time. Nothing special there! :)


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thanks for sharing Kari. Every generation has their fond memories. It will be interesting to hear what their's will be


KCC Big Country profile image

KCC Big Country 7 years ago from Central Texas

Great hub and very thorough, St. James! As the first Texan to respond.......hell yeah, chicken is our favorite! It's a southern thang, boy! Mama's fried chicken is what home cookin' is all about. But, since Mama's tired and we're saving her the fuss and mess...we'll have Swanson's version instead. It's the next best thang....sort of. LOL


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

As someone living in the south KCC, I can appreciate Fried Chicken. Its linger ficking good!


Dink96 profile image

Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

What a coincidence--my brother was just reminscing about the Swanson Hungry Man Dinners last night at coffee! He does that a lot :) But this did bring a lot of memories: shopping day at the commissary on base and what a treat it was to pick out our own TV dinners for that night. Ah, the simple pleasures of childhood.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Ahhh, yes Dinky... The Hungry Man Dinner was a product of the early 70s...originally "Mean" Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers was the spokesman.


RKHenry profile image

RKHenry 7 years ago from Your neighborhood museum

Remember the beef pot pies? I just had one.

My granddad loved the salsibury steak TV dinners. I remember when every household had TV trays. Great hub!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

RKHenry... I still like potpies as well. I don't eat them very often these days since I equate them more as winter-warm yourself up food. I live in a state of never ending summer these days. Granddad sounds like a man of taste.

Thank you for popping in.


blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Hey St.James I am terribly behind your hubs you have been so busy, you pop your hubs out like flies.Believe it or not memories or not these meals are making my tummy rumble.Mmmmmmmmmm


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

I'm sure a pretty woman as yourself could convince one of your many male suitors to take you out for something much nicer than a frozen dinner. I'll try to slow down so you don't have so much of my work to read. Thanks for being such an avid reader BlondePoet.


trish1048 profile image

trish1048 7 years ago

I loved, and still love, Swanson's fried chicken dinner. You brought to mind not only the dinners, but I can still picture the tv trays that we plopped in front of the tv. Wonderful memories. Two of my other favorites were the chicken and beef pot pies. YUM! I still buy a frozen dinner now and then, but was very disappointed with Swanson's pot pies. Seems somewhere along they way they decided to cut costs and they no longer have a bottom crust. I have since found Stoeffer's puts out a chicken pot pie that is almost as good, which does have a bottom crust.

But, oh the memories, thanks so much for sharing this. A well written, nostalgic informative hub.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Trish, it's amazing we grow up and find new frozen dinners with a more sophicated palate like Stouffer's or Marie Callendars. But our hearts and memories be long to Swanson.

Ahhh...good thoughts.


christine almaraz profile image

christine almaraz 7 years ago from colorado springs

Great hub. Gets me feeling like a kid again. T.V. dinners were a treat for us kids.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

I bet you're still a kid at heart Christine... I do miss much of that time, the America I grew up with.


blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Awwwww


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

  ;-)


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Magnificent retrospective of the TV dinner phenomenon. I found your Hub by following Trish, and here's my story...

Trish and I grew up together. I loved going to her house because her mom and dad were right with the times, as in Swanson's TV dinners and Glasswax Christmas decorations on the windows. In my family, it was all the opposite. Home-cooked food was the golden idol, and Christmas decorations would never involve purchasing a spray compound in a can.

Reading through the details in your Hub was a delight in so many ways. Thumbs up!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you so much for adding wonderful bits of your insight. It seems everyone has some kind of story association with TV dinners. Funny I just did this because I couldn't think of anything interesting to write about... Boy, am I shocked.

TV dinners also had one more target group in mind... the divorced male who lives in the musty one bedroom apartment by the airport.


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

LOL, St.James, on two counts. One, TV dinners have a place in millions upon millions of hearts, so please don't continue to be surprised by the popularity of this Hub.

The other...I have had a divorced uncle or two whose favorite dinners were either of the TV variety, or my mother's homemade soups. If they couldn't get my mother's soups, they'd opt for the dinners.

But another thought. I wonder if it wasn't the mother, woman, who introduced this product into the family's meal time. For example, Trish's mom worked full-time in the 50s, in a restaurant no less, but she was the one who introduced this dinner to her family, because of the convenience and the freedom it gave her.

I do wonder if men would have thought up this alternative for themselves, or did they follow the examples of the women in their lives first? Peculiar thoughts, but then, that's what the idea of TV dinners generates.


issues veritas 7 years ago

Sally

 

How timely, I was just talking about the TV dinners

I think that the popularity increased as the divorce rate went up and many men were left cookless, that is without a cook. Also, it was probably the start of both parents going to work and they had little time except on the weekends to cook.

Thanks, but now I am hungry.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Sally and Issues Veritas... The frozen dinner is also concidered the beginning of when the tables started to turn. From traditional home cooked dinners with the family to the Family going out more often for dinner.

Great shares from the both of you. I raise my fork full of Swanson mashed potatoes to you both.


jim10 profile image

jim10 7 years ago from ma

Thanks for all of the great info about TV Dinners. My boys would love to go back to the TV dinner idea. I'm too young to have witnessed it first hand, but it is very interesting. My grandparent had those folding trays to eat food off of in their den. They never used them from what I can remember. They must have been leftovers from the TV Dinner Craze. I had used them a few times when I was little and we had a house full of relatives over and when I was sick. Now we have Hungry Man and Weight Watchers for TV dinners. My wife sometimes gets these for at work. My son had one a few times and loved it. For myself I stay far away. I love to cook and prefer to make dinner myself.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you Jim! Your sharing of the experience is fantastic. I love the commonality shared between everyone's story and frozen dinner memories. They all seem so inner-changable. Beautiful, thank you again for sharing.

P.S. the only time I remember ever seeing my grandparents ever use the TV trays was during Thanksgiving dinner.


Garth 7 years ago

I surely remember those days of Swanson TV Dinners being in those aluminum trays. Food was better in those days. Nostalgia, oh how I'm in love with you.


mwatkins profile image

mwatkins 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon & Vancouver BC

This is great! I asked a Texan about the chicken and he said, "Turkey" was his choice - but he's not a true Texan - He comes from Arkansas originally. I love the brilliance of your commentary, your insight and your historical pieces. The vids really do the article justice, too - Well done and BTW, my grandpa would not allow a TV dinner into their home - dinner was "from Scratch" or it went in the garbage. Mom was the worst cook so these were her saving grace! Dad got "Hungry Man" once they started coming out with those! LOL

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