“Comforting thoughts for a hurried housewife” says the ad copy on a 1950’s Swanson TV dinner, but which came first, the TV or the dinner?
According to a variety of sources, TV wins that battle, with a patent being awarded in 1884. In contrast, what ultimately became known as the TV dinner was possibly created in the early ‘40s by a company that produced ready to eat frozen meals, consisting of meat, a potato and a vegetable in a plastic container, to be reheated and served to airline passengers. Near the end of that decade, a Pittsburgh area company developed a similar meal but in an aluminum tray.
In 1953, Swanson Foods created the product that actually earned the moniker, TV dinner, when it was stuck with a huge surplus of turkeys after poor Thanksgiving sales. Swanson packaged its leftover turkey with cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes in an aluminum tray that could be heated directly in the oven for twenty-five minutes at four hundred twenty five degrees, and then consumed from the same tray. It was sold in grocery stores and cost ninety-eight cents. There is some disagreement about how many of those meals were sold during the first year. Published figures range from ten to twenty-five million. I’m going to report that lots were sold. According to some, Swanson anticipated selling only five thousand. I wonder if they fired the analyst?
Supposedly, TV dinners were named such because of the shape of its container, which resembled the 1950s television, with a screen and smaller panels underneath (depending on how the container was placed in front of its eater). Its size was perfect to fit on the TV trays that were starting to flood the marketplace. One of the containers was actually placed in the Smithsonian Institution in 1987.
So families could now save time cooking dinners, and that meant more time for watching television. Most American families were consuming at least one of these meals every week. The TV dinner gave housewives, who were the family cooks, more free time for activities, both leisure and work, while at the same time, allowing them to give their families a hot meal.
By the end of the 50s, Americans were spending nearly three billion dollars on frozen food and about one-sixth of that was spent on pre-prepared meals. Its popularity continued well into the 60s when concerns for health and fast-food restaurants caused the TV dinner market to taper.
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