By Derek Smith
One of my most iconic memories from growing up in the late fifties and early 1960s is the “TV dinner.”
On a busy night in the Smith household, I looked forward to the TV dinner, and I am not suggesting my mom was a lousy cook. She was a master chef, having grown up on a farm where the family meal was paramount. Dinner time was handled with great care, always providing a perfect balance of taste, nutrition, fulfillment, protein, and vegetables. It was a meal prepared with much love and determination.
During and after World War 2, more women were finding employment outside the household, and the television set was finding its way into North American living rooms.
The frozen TV dinner was becoming a popular product. It gave the busy mom and sometimes a busy dad a little downtime at the end of a hectic day. The meal required only a hot oven for about 25 minutes and could be purchased back in the 1950s for 89 cents.
Clean-up was a breeze as there were no dishes to wash!
For those of us lucky enough to have a black-and-white television, it was a special night when we could watch such shows as Lassie, the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, the Mickey Mouse Club, Sky King, or perhaps Ed Sullivan Show (on Sunday night) while eating our dinner from those warm aluminum trays, that we had perched on those light folding dinner trays. These meal stands would also become a profitable manufacturing business.
One could choose from several TV dinners, but my favorite was the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cornbread stuffing.
It usually came with a couple of vegetables, the most common choices being peas, carrots, beans, or corn.
If I drew the shortest straw, I picked last, which meant, in all certainty, I was getting the meal with the side of peas.
Peas did not do well with us five kids, even when my mother tried reinforcing their taste with a couple of tablespoons of orange juice.
Luckily for us, our boxer dog “Skippy,” was only too happy to wrap his mouth around those horrible spherical seeds, not knowing that he had saved us great anguish had we chewed and swallowed those unpalatable vegetables.
The first complete frozen meals were made by Maxson Foods in 1945. They were served to military and civilian airline personnel and passengers on their plastic “Strato Plates.” Their three plastic compartments were designed to hold a meat, a vegetable, and a potato.
With the death of its founder, William Maxson, and some financial difficulties, Maxson’s product was never introduced into the retail market.
On a side note, Maxson is also credited with inventing a multiple-machine gun mount and an aerial navigation system.
In 1947, Jack Fisher introduced the first frozen meals to bars and taverns, packaged in aluminum trays. They provided quick and easy lunches and dinners, called “Fridgi-Dinners,” to the hungry American bar crowd without the need for a sophisticated kitchen or a trained cook.
The first frozen dinners to find their way into the American household were sold under the One-Eyed Eskimo label by brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein. They sold 400,000 frozen dinners in 1950 and more than 2 million by 1954 under their new corporation, Quaker State Food Corporation.
The Swanson Company of Omaha, Nebraska, introduced their first frozen TV dinners onto grocery shelves on September 10, 1953. However, the ownership of the idea for their frozen dinner product and its tri-compartment aluminum tray became a topic for discussion and dispute for many decades.
Gilbert and Clarke Swanson claimed credit for the invention, having been inspired by an airline tray while flying to a business meeting.
Gerry Thomas, a two-hundred-dollar-per-month Swanson salesman, stated the idea for the three-compartment dinner tray was his after he saw one in a distributor’s warehouse in Pittsburg.
In any event, Thomas would receive a $1,000.00 bonus for his contribution. In 1953, Swanson sold 5,000 frozen dinners; in 1954, Swanson sold more than 10 million frozen meals.
By 1955, Swanson had grown to 20 plants, which employed 4,000 people. The Campbell Soup Company acquired the company in April of that year, and they would sell 13 million TV dinners in 1956.
As time passed into the early 1970s, the frozen dinner marketplace had become increasingly competitive, with new cuisines and many different flavors. Swanson’s was slow to upgrade their products and their aluminum packaging, which was not microwave-safe.
As a result, they were losing market share to TV dinner competitors such as Stouffers Lean Cuisine and many others.
Finally, in the 1980s. Swanson moved to a microwaveable tray and a new brand called “Le Menu.”
It might have been a case of “too little, too late,” as in March of 1988, the Campbell Soup Company spun off its Swanson TV dinner business and several other brands to Vlasic Foods International.
In 2001, Vlasic was rebranded Pinnacle Foods and continued to use the Swanson name under a 10-year agreement signed with the Campbell Soup Company.
That “Swanson” name agreement expired in the summer of 2009, just before Pinnacle acquired the Bird’s Eye Food Company. In the future, Pinnacle would continue to manufacture and market frozen meals under the Hungry-Man label.
On June 27, 2018, Conagra Brands announced the purchase of Pinnacle Foods for 8.1 billion. The acquisition closed on October 26, 2018.
In the 1950s, while sitting on the family chesterfield, holding my Swanson turkey dinner, I never envisioned that the Swanson Company would reshape into a billion-dollar industry. At that time, I had no idea what a billion dollars might be. My thoughts were of contentment and happiness, my dog Skippy planted quietly at my feet, anticipating his usual feed of those dreadful green peas, as I wondered whether The Lone Ranger and his always knowledgeable, faithful friend Tonto would finally capture the bad guys.