Why do they call them TV Dinners?
Because they taste like eating a television?
Isn’t it amazing what one invention can do? I’m speaking today of the television. Not only was its creation responsible for all of the television shows we watched — and all the commercials — without the television there would be several things we just wouldn’t have today.
We wouldn’t have a TV Guide. We wouldn’t need a TV tray. And we might never have had the experience of enjoying a TV Dinner. Oh, boy. And that’s what we’re going to talk about here today.
As anyone who grew up in the fifties knows, a TV Dinner is a prepackaged, frozen or chilled meal which usually comes in an individual package. It requires very little preparation and contains all the elements for a single-serving meal. And they certainly made Mom’s life a lot easier back in the fifties. But where did it come from (of course it came from the grocery store, but I mean how did it get there?)
We’re going to have to hop in the Wayback Machine again and let Max set the dial for 1953. That’s the year C.A. Swanson and son’t originally developed the product we all came to love (sort of).
They were first called TV Brand Frozen Dinner. The original TV Dinner came in an aluminium tray and was heated in an oven. The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was produced in the United States and consisted of a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes packaged in a tray like those used at the time for airline food service.
Each item was placed in its own compartment. The trays proved to be useful: the entire dinner could be removed from the outer packaging as a unit; the aluminum tray could be heated directly in the oven without any extra dishes; and one could eat the meal directly out of the same tray.
The product was cooked for 25 minutes at 425°F and fit nicely on a TV tray. The original TV Dinner sold for 98 cents, and had a production estimate of 5,000 dinners for the first year. Swanson far exceeded its expectations, and ended up selling more than 10 million of these dinners in the first year of production. Their early packaging featured the image of a TV set.
The identity of the TV Dinner's inventor has been disputed. In one account, first publicized in 1996, retired Swanson executive Gerry Thomas said he conceived the idea after the company found itself with a huge surplus of frozen turkeys because of poor Thanksgiving sales. Thomas' version of events has been challenged by the Los Angeles Times, members of the Swanson family and former Swanson employees. They credit the Swanson brothers with the invention.
Either way, Swanson's concept was not original. In 1944, William L. Maxson's frozen dinners were being served on airplanes. Other prepackaged meals were also marketed before Swanson's TV Dinner. In 1948, plain frozen fruits and vegetables were joined by what were then called 'dinner plates' with an entrée, potato, and vegetable.
Later, in 1952, the first frozen dinners on oven-ready aluminum trays were introduced by Quaker States Foods under the One-Eye Eskimo label. (How politically correct is that image today?) Quaker States Foods was joined by other companies including Frigi-Dinner, which offered such fare as beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. (Oh, yummy.)
However Swanson, a large producer of canned and frozen poultry in Omaha, Nebraska, was able to promote the widespread sales and adaption of frozen dinner by using its nationally-recognized brand name with an extensive national marketing campaign nicknamed "Operation Smash" and the clever advertising name of "TV Dinner," which tapped into the public's excitement around the new device.