First frozen food sold: March 6, 1930

For the first time, frozen food in individual packages, goes on sale in retail stores.  The new items, which debut in 18 stores in Springfield, Massachusetts, are the invention of a former taxidermist named Clarence Birdseye, who had been working on the process of quick freezing fresh food for years, He had once worked as a fur trapper in Labrador and had seen  Eskimos store fresh fish in barrels of frozen sea water.

Birdseye, who had been trained as a biologist, realized that the fish had tasted fresh when thawed because it had frozen so quickly that ice crystals didn’t have time to form and damage the food’s cell structure.  Back in 1925, he had refined the quick-freeze process in which packaged food was held under pressure between two hollow metal plates that were chilled to -25 degrees. Using this method a two-inch thick package of meat could be frozen in about 90 minutes, while fruits and vegetables took only 30 minutes.

In 1929, Birdseye had sold his company and patents for $22 million to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Company, which would become General Foods.  But that first shipment of frozen food in 1930 still carried his name—it was sold as “Birds Eye Frosted Foods.” He turned to developing refrigerated grocery display cases, which he began manufacturing in 1934. And by 1944, his company was leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport frozen food all over the U.S.

By the late 1940’s, American families were buying freezers for their homes and the convenience of frozen foods made them big sellers. Food companies began selling more elaborate offerings, from entrees to frozen pizzas. What really put frozen food in the mainstream of American culture, however, was the boom in TV sales in the 1950s. This sparked the popularity of frozen “TV dinners,” designed to be heated up and then eaten in front of the tube.

By the time Birdseye died of a heart attack in the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York in 1956, frozen food had become a billion-dollar industry.