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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 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.