Slice of History: The TV Dinner: Jan. 6, 1954

A food company in Omaha, Nebraska known as C.A. Swanson & Sons announces that it will soon have on the market a new frozen food product it calls a “TV dinner.”  When it goes on sale soon after--at 98 cents a meal—it begins to change not just what Americans eat for their family dinners, but also how and where they eat it.

The story goes that this new type of meal was a clever solution to a big problem the company had that winter—an oversupply of 260 tons of frozen turkeys still sitting in 10 refrigerated railroad cars. A Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas came up with the idea of creating meals for American families that were packaged in aluminum foil trays, with each food getting its own little compartment.

It was pretty much a copy of how airlines were serving meals at the time, but this was the first time the concept was applied to food consumed in the home. The marketing pitch also tied into one of the hottest new trends in America back then—family TV-watching after dinner. The TV dinner now made it very easy to watch TV during dinner.

Swanson’s first meal was pretty straightforward—and built around all that extra turkey. It also included corn-bread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes. The last two were topped with a pat of butter. All it took to prepare a dinner was to put the package in a conventional oven and heat it for 25 minutes.

It was all about convenience.  A sample magazine ad for TV dinners at the time showed an elegantly-dressed woman pulling some TV dinners from a grocery bag, accompanied by the tag line: “I’m late—but dinner won’t be.”

Even Swanson was surprised at how quickly their innovation took off, but it didn’t hesitate to jump right into the frozen dinner business, soon adding new versions of the meal built around fried chicken, Salisbury steak and meat loaf.  In that first full year of production, Swanson sold 10 million meals. It had expected to sell 5,000. Within a year, Swanson was bought out by the Campbell’s Soup Company.

Over the years, the TV dinner evolved. Desserts, including apple cobbler and brownies, were added in 1960. By 1969, the company was offering a breakfast version featuring pancakes and sausage. By then, though, the words “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” had been removed from the label.

In 1973, the first Swanson “Hungry-Man” dinners came out. These, as the name suggested, contained larger portions, and to make that point, the company hired football star “Mean” Joe Greene as its spokesman.

By 1986, the familiar aluminum foil tray was gone, replaced by a microwave-friendly plastic version.

Today, you can no longer find the Swanson name on frozen dinners, although the “Hungry Man” branding has survived. The frozen breakfasts are branded “Aunt Jemima.”

For health reasons, frozen meals have begun to lose their appeal—a lot of salt and fat is added to make them more flavorful. But for more than 50 years, they were a staple of the American home. To commemorate its impact on U.S. culture, the original “TV Dinner” tray was added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection in 1987, and in 1999, Swanson was celebrated with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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