As the story goes, after poor Thanksgiving sales left Swanson Foods with a huge surplus of turkeys, Swanson executive Gerry Thomas conceived an idea – what if they packaged the turkeys with other foods in an easy to prepare meal container, similar to what airlines in that era served passengers on domestic flights. When Swanson invented the TV dinner in 1953, they estimated production of 5,000 dinners for the first year and ramped manufacturing accordingly. By the end of the first year, Swanson had sold more than 10 million of the 98 cent turkey and dressing TV-Dinner meals.
The invention of TV dinners
In the early 1940’s, William L. Maxson, owner of Maxson Food Systems Inc., began selling three-part frozen meals, called “Strato-Plates”, for troops flying overseas. The meals were designed by a Swedish chef (who had once worked for the Queen Marie of Romania) and manufactured in Queens Village, New York. Each meal contained a compartment for a meat, potato, and a vegetable. Knowing that airplanes strictly enforced weight limits on the aircraft, and that the industrial ovens needed to heat the meals would be too heavy to carry on the craft, he also invented a small convection type oven he called “Maxson Whirlwind Oven”. Each oven could hold six of Maxson’s trays at a time and heated the meals by blowing hot air through the frozen food plate. Using his Maxson Whirlwind Oven, the meals could be heated 30 minutes faster than they could have been using a conventional oven.
Towards the end of the war, the military began cutting back flights. To compensate for the lost revenue, Maxson approached Pan Am airlines about selling similar meals on their commercial and civilian flights. By 1944, Pan Am began serving Maxson’s “Sky-Plates” aboard its flights using a similarly designed setup as the one Maxson used on the military flights. Soon all airlines were serving the frozen meals on their flights.
By 1947, Maxson had just begun exploring the possibility of distributing the frozen meals through specialty stores (most grocery stores at that time did not have freezers) when he died after an operation. His children had little interest in the business and Maxson Food Systems Inc. closed shortly after his death.
Imitators filled the void left by the closure of Maxson Food Systems. In 1948, plain frozen fruits and vegetables were joined by what were then called ‘dinner plates’ with an entrÃ©e, potato, and vegetable. Later, in 1952, the first frozen dinners on oven-ready aluminum trays were introduced by Quaker States Foods under the One-Eye Eskimo label. Quaker States Foods was joined by other companies including Frigi-Dinner, which offered such fare as beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. However, Swanson, a large producer of canned and frozen poultry in Omaha, Nebraska, was able to promote the widespread sales and adaptation of frozen dinner by using its nationally-recognized brand name with an extensive national marketing campaign nicknamed “Operation Smash” and the clever advertising name of “TV Dinner,” which tapped into the public’s excitement around the new television device.
By 1954, Americans had two passions – they loved time saving modern appliances and they loved their newest form of entertainment, the television. Swanson’s entry into the market could not have been timed any better. The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was produced in the United States and consisted of a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes packaged in a tray like those used at the time for airline food service. Each item was placed in its own compartment. The aluminum tray could be heated directly in the oven without any extra dishes and consumers could eat the meal directly out of the same tray. The original TV Dinner sold for 98 cents, and had a production estimate of 5,000 dinners for the first year. Swanson far exceeded its expectations, and ended up selling more than 10 million of these dinners in the first year of production.
Unbeknownst to most people, the TV Dinner name did not derive from the common scenario in which it was eaten; families eating the dinners in the living room while watching television. The name TV dinner came from the shape of the tray it was served on. The main entrÃ©e was in a bigger compartment on one side of the tray and the vegetables lined up in smaller compartments on the other side. The arrangement was similar to how the front panels of a 1950s television set: a screen on the left and speakers and control on the right.
The popularity of TV dinners exploded during the 1950’s with most families consuming at least one meal per week consisting of the pre-prepared meals. The popularity continued well into the 1960’s but began to taper as consumer health concerns and movement to fast-food restaurants eroded the TV dinner market share.
The evolving TV dinner market:
- 1960 – Swanson added desserts (such as apple cobbler and brownies) to a new four-compartment tray.
- 1964 – Night Hawk name originated from the Night Hawk steak houses that operated in Austin, Texas from 1939 through 1994. The original “diners” were open all night catering to the late-night crowd. The restaurants produced the first frozen Night Hawk “TV dinner” in 1964.
- 1969 – The first TV breakfasts were marketed (pancakes and sausage were the favorites). Great Starts Breakfasts and breakfast sandwiches (such as egg and Canadian bacon) followed later.
- 1973 – The first Swanson Hungry-Man dinners were marketed; these were larger portions of its regular dinner products. “Mean” Joe Greene, football player, was its spokesman.
- 1986 – The first microwave oven-safe trays were marketed.