How 260 Tons of Thanksgiving Leftovers Gave Birth to an Industry

The birth of the TV dinner started with a mistake

The traditional Thanksgiving turkey is delicious, but is it paleo? Tim Sackton via Flickr

Had my hyperkinetic mother been inclined to meditate, her mantra would have consisted of two brand names: Birds Eye and Swanson. Mom was a working woman in the early 1950s, when that was far from the norm and, in suburban New Jersey, at least, not encouraged. For the record, my mother worked for my father at his real estate office in Westfield. Dad was a handsome man admired by women, and I have long suspected that part of her job was to keep an eye on him. But whatever her motives, she put in her days at the office and then came home to cook for the family, a necessary but unloved chore. So when Birds Eye presented her with frozen peas, she took it as a personal favor and did her best to serve the handy little cryogenic miracles at least five times a week. And when C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the TV dinner in 1954, relieving mom of responsibility for the entire meal (except for the My-T-Fine tapioca pudding she favored for dessert), she must have thought the world a mighty fine place indeed.

If convenience was the mother of my mother's contentment, the mother of the TV dinner was that old serial procreator, necessity. In 1953, someone at Swanson colossally miscalculated the level of the American appetite for Thanksgiving turkey, leaving the company with some 260 tons of frozen birds sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. Enter the father of invention, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas, a visionary inspired by the trays of pre-prepared food served on airlines. Ordering 5,000 aluminum trays, concocting a straightforward meal of turkey with corn-bread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes (both topped with a pat of butter), and recruiting an assembly line of women with spatulas and ice-cream scoops, Thomas and Swanson launched the TV dinner at a price of 98 cents (those are Eisenhower-era cents, of course). The company's grave doubts that the initial order would sell proved to be another miscalculation, though a much happier one for Swanson; in the first full year of production, 1954, ten million turkey dinners were sold.

The original marketing campaign for TV dinners was, if you will allow me, tray chic. A typical magazine ad showed a stylish woman wearing a smart green suit, a pert feathered hat and black gloves taking a TV dinner out of a grocery bag. In the background sits her smiling husband, in a tan suit and bow tie, comfortably reading his newspaper. The copy line for this bit of Ozzie and Harriet heaven reads: "I'm late—but dinner won't be."

My mother, every bit as well turned out as Madison Avenue's version of the happy housewife, didn't serve TV dinners every night, of course—the shame factor for failing to provide home cooking was considerably higher then than it is today. But she was quick to see in this manna from Swanson a magic that made it more pleasing to her children (though perhaps not to my father) than a meatloaf or roast chicken done from scratch. At the risk of trying to read the mind of the kid I was at the time, I suspect that the orderliness of the three precisely separated servings contrasted with the general turmoil of growing up, or the specific chaos of my bedroom. And in a culture where packaging is paramount, the idea that a complete meal could be contained in one slim, stackable container appealed mightily to the American yearning for simplicity, economy and efficiency.

But beyond those obvious attractions, Swanson's brave new product was aided immeasurably by its synergy with another increasingly powerful package, the television set. TV had already made inroads on the Norman Rockwell sanctity of the dinner hour. After all, once the day at school was discussed (reluctantly) by the kids, and the day at work was described (wearily) by father, and the weather and the state of the world were exhausted as subjects, the temptation arose, even in those more conversational days, to let the tube take over.

As home entertainment shifted from the piano (once a ubiquitous and nearly essential home accessory) to the big wooden box with its small flickering screen, the idea of watching—instead of listening to—programs at home seemed transformative, a tipping point into a changed world. Swanson's marketers clearly realized that this was a medium you could tie your message to; after all, the company had not tried to market Radio Dinners. The idea of pre-prepared meals, heated up at the last moment, seemed to fit right in with the spontaneous excitement of gathering around the screen to watch Milton Berle, Jack Benny and a couple of endearing hand puppets, Kukla and Ollie, along with their human friend, Fran.

Much has changed since then. Having invented the form, Swanson, now owned by Pinnacle Foods in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, retains only 10 percent of the annual $1.2 billion frozen dinner market. With the advent of microwave ovens, the aluminum tray was replaced by paper. And way back in 1962, Swanson dropped the "TV" from its product label. But those of us who were there at the beginning, when meals and Uncle Miltie fatefully merged, will always think of TV dinners as one of the great hits of television's early years.

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