What do you do when supply exceeds demand so badly that coming out of Thanksgiving, your company has to figure out what to do with more than 500,000 pounds of unsold turkeys? Oh, and it’s 1952.
If you’re Nebraska-based C.A. Swanson and Sons, known for frozen chicken pot pies, you start brainstorming. While the brainstorming took place, the story is that those turkeys traveled in 10 refrigerated railway cars back-and-forth from Nebraska to the east coast. The refrigeration units worked only if the cars were moving, you see.
The brainstorming (there are competing stories about this) led to a $0.98 ‘ready-to-heat’ meal consisting of turkey with cornbread dressing, gravy, peas and potatoes. That wasn’t cheap in 1953: it’s equivalent to almost $11 today.
🍴On September 10, 1953, Swanson introduced the first 'TV Dinner' pic.twitter.com/HYzfIITdD4
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) September 11, 2021
However, Swanson did not pioneer the technologies needed to create a “quick frozen” turkey dinner.
- 1925: Clarence Birdseye developed a method of “flash freezing” fish that created much smaller ice crystals than traditional (slow) freezing. The smaller crystals meant better flavor and texture when thawed.
- 1945: Maxson Food Systems, Inc. manufactured the first complete frozen meals, and they were served to military and civilian airplane passengers. The six ‘blue plate specials’ featured meat, potatoes and vegetables. The “Strato-Plate” meals were served on a compartmentalized paperboard tray. Maxson also sold “defreezing ovens.”
- 1949: Frozen Dinners, Inc. sold frozen meals served in aluminum trays in the Pittsburgh area. In 1952, the founders formed the Quaker State Food Corporation and expanded sales east of the Mississippi River.
- 1953: Swanson introduced the TV dinner (and a turkey pot pie). Some articles claim the year as 1954. However, the New York Times wrote about the TV dinner on 07 October 1953 and its advertising campaign on 19 December 1953.
In 1954, Swanson sold more than 10,000,000 TV dinners. In 1955, 25,000,000.
Swanson had the right product at the right time.
Black-and-white television had invaded the average American home. By 1955, 3-in-5 homes had a TV. Technology often leads to altered behavior.
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.
Swanson stopped using “TV dinner” in 1962.
Campbell Soup Co. created the microwavable tray in 1986, truly launching the frozen meal market.
- A Brief History of the TV Dinner. Smithsonian Magazine.
- Culinary Curiosities: The Frozen TV Dinner Still a Note Option for Some. Food Service News.
- Defrosted Dinners. The New Yorker.
- First TV dinner is introduced. Packaging Digest.
- How 260 Tons of Thanksgiving Leftovers Gave Birth to an Industry. Smithsonian Magazine.
- Who “invented” the TV dinner? Library of Congress.
- Who invented the TV dinner? History.com