"It's a TV dinner. You are supposed to watch TV while you eat it." This is how a Polish immigrant explains this American phenomenon to his newly arrived cousin in the 1985 film Stranger Than Paradise. In fact, TV dinners, invented in 1953, represented much of what was new and technologically exciting in 1950s American culture. A marvel of modern streamlined efficiency, the TV dinner combined home refrigeration and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), two of the decade's most popular new inventions. Besides that, they allowed Mom to take a break from preparing the family meal and to sit down with the family to eat in front of the television.
This shift in focus from gathering around the dinner table to gathering around the television would change American family life forever.
TV dinners originated as a creative solution to a business problem. C. A. Swanson and Sons was a poultry supplier that had sold chickens and turkeys nationwide since the 1920s. In the late fall of 1953, the company found itself with 260 tons of turkey that had not sold during the Thanksgiving season. As the turkeys rode back and forth across the country in refrigerated train cars, Swanson executive Gerry Thomas (1922–) tried to think of a solution. The lightweight aluminum tray in which his food was served on an airline flight gave him an idea. He quickly designed a molded aluminum tray with four separate compartments. Then he pitched an idea to Clark Swanson, one of the owners of the company. Why not put a different food in each compartment and package the whole thing as an individual frozen dinner (see entry under 1930s—Food and Drink in volume 2)? Tying the meal in with television could give it the appeal of a modern trend.
Thomas's idea was a radical notion at a time when Americans were used to eating only home-cooked meals prepared from fresh ingredients. Few people owned televisions and even fewer had freezing compartments in their refrigerators (see entry under 1910s—The Way We Lived in volume 1). Swanson and Thomas had no idea if people would accept the new dinners, but they used up their leftover turkeys making five thousand dinners with cornbread stuffing, buttered peas, and gravy. They packaged them in a box designed to look like a television screen and sold them for ninety-nine cents.
The TV dinner concept struck a chord in American families. The first five thousand dinners sold quickly. During the next year, Swanson produced and sold ten million dinners. By 2000, Swanson and other manufacturers were selling almost ten million dinners a week, making TV dinners a $4-billion-a-year industry.
For More Information
Gardner, Marilyn. "Dining for 45 Years with an American Icon." TheChristian Science Monitor (April 7, 1999): pp. 15–16.
I'll Buy That! 50 Small Wonders and Big Deals that Revolutionized the Lives of Consumers. Mount Vernon, NY: Consumers Union, 1986.
McLaughlin, Michael, and Katie O'Kennedy. "1950s: Tupperware, TV Dinners and Rock 'n' Roll." Bon Appetit (September 1999): pp. 190–99.
Shaffer, Jeffrey. "Swanson's in the Cozy Cathode Glow: Growing Up with Swanson's TV Dinners." The Christian Science Monitor (April 16, 1999): p. 11.