TV Dinners, A History
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TV Dinners, A History

TV dinners have been a popular part of the American psyche and dinner table for more than 50 years. An icon of the early 1950's, TV dinners provide a quick and efficient way to serve meals for people on the go. Their balanced portions and economical price make then a desirable choice for many Americans.

TV dinners . . . we've all eaten them at some time or other in our lives, but do you know where they started or how?

Of course, someone invented them, but then, like most historical accounts, there seems to be some controversy about it.

The most famous name in early TV dinners was Swanson.  The history goes that in 1951, Swanson had an excess of Thanksgiving turkeys--to the tune of some 500,000 pounds!  Without enough warehouse space to store it, they put it in refrigerated railroad cars and asked employees for suggestions.

Gerry Thomas, an employee, apparently concocted the idea of packaging the turkey into frozen dinners---turkey and dressing, frozen peas, sweet potatoes, packaged in an aluminum tray with compartments.

But there's another side to this story.  A bacteriologist who worked wth Swanson, Betty Cronin, is reported as saying it wasn't Thomas, but the brothers Gilbert and Clarke Swanson who came up with the TV dinner idea. 

Swanson is also credited with the creation of a 1950's marketing campaign designed to catch the attention of millions of housewives:  "I'm late, but dinner won't be!"

The campaign was successful and by 1954 Swanson was becoming a household name.  But, Swanson is only part of the TV dinner story.  The catalyst was World War II, and the idea of pre-packaged quick-fix meals became desirable in the flood of modernization of the latter 1940's.

The earliest precursors were frozen fruits and vegetables joined with entrees in small aluminum trays, or plastic servers known as "strato-plates".

One of the earliest companies to enter the TV dinner market was Maxson Food Systems who got started by providing meals to military and civilian aircraft, as early as 1944.  William L. Maxson offered a 3-part meal of meat, vegetables, and potato, but his version never went retail.  There were 2 reasons: a lack of finances, and the death of Mr. Maxson.  Had things been different, we might be eating TV dinners with the name Maxson on them.

Jack Fisher created the "Frigi-Dinner" in the late 1940's, and marketed them to bars and taverns.

In 1949, Frozen Dinners, Inc, was born by Albert and Meyer Bernstein, using a 3-compartment aluminum tray.  They marketed out of the Pittsburgh area under the One-Eyed Eskimo label, and by 1950 produced over 400,000 dinners. Demand was rising, and they changed their company name to Quaker State Food Corp. in 1952, with expanding markets.  The entrees and food items also became more varied with offerings of chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice, and beef goulash with peas and potatoes.  By 1954, they had sold over 2,500,000 units. 

Yet, despite early competition for this market, the Swanson company moved ahead of the pack in a couple of ways.  The name TV dinner was applied to the meals generically during its inception, but Swanson and Sons actually utilized the name "TV Brand Frozen Dinner" for their products for the first time. Swanson utilized aluminum trays that could be heated in an oven then eaten from without using extra dishes.  The size of the tray fit nicely on a TV tray table and hence its reputation of being eaten in front of the television was popularized. 

In its first year, Swanson's TV dinners sold for 98 cents each, and they far exceeded their first year sales projections soaring to over 10 million in sales!  Another technological landmark Swanson used to propel them to the top was the invention of the process called "synchronization" which enabled all the ingredients on the tray to cook in the same amount of time.  This was a huge step forward in the production and marketing of frozen meals. 

As the novelty of the frozen dinner wore off with time, concerns about the quality and content of the foods served in them began to be questioned.  It was discovered that many of them were processed with large amounts of salt and fat to help them last longer and taste better.

Desserts were later added, and these often required partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, making them high in trans fats.  Today's frozen food companies have made great efforts to bring healthier components to their meals, while still preserving the long life typical of these products.

The TV dinners of today now offer a large variety of choices from many different companies.  Many ethnic food choices are available including Asian, Medterranean, and Mexican entrees.  Swanson's main challenge to its market position came first from Banquet Foods, who offered ther frozen meals at a cheaper price than Swanson.

Here are some other landmarks of note:

1960--Swanson introduced a 4-comparment tray and offered desserts.

1969--Breakfast foods were first offered.

1973--Swanson introduced their Hungry Man dinners marketed to provide larger food portions.

1986--The advent of the microwave safe trays.

Despite their many changes over the decades since their invention, TV dinners have held a place not only in the American psyche, but on those always enduring TV tables.  Now, I've got to run rescue my TV dinner from the microwave!  Bon appetit!

Credits and citations:

www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/TVdinners.html

www.TVtraysource.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TV_dinner

Leslie Pryor s a published author, teacher, and freelance writer.  My recently published book is titled "In Search of . . . Wisdom the Principle Thing.  Check out my websites for more information: www.lspryor.com and www.wisdomtheprinciplething.com.

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Comments (3)

Good article. Maybe they should call them computer dinners today – eaten in front of your PC. I always thought Swanson's fried chicken entree was pretty good considering its low cost. Oh, yummy! We're having TV dinners tonight!

I admit it, I've eaten them before and even liked them

Ranked #10 in Popular Culture

Good to know the history...stumbled.

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