The Rise of TV Dinners

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TV Dinners rose to popularity thanks to the Swanson company

In 1925, the Brooklyn-born inventor Clarence Birdseye engineered a machine capable of freezing packaged fish that would eventually reinvent the storage and preparation of food. Fast forward 20 years later, and the Maxson Food Systems out of Long Island, New York, is using Birdseye’s double-belt freezer technology to sell the world’s first complete frozen dinners to airline companies. Plans to add these frozen dinners to supermarkets worldwide fell through after the tragic death of William L. Maxon, the company’s founder. In the end, the one who revolutionized how Americans ate dinner was at the hands of the Swanson Company.

Using the most widely known information, a salesman at the Swanson Company by the name of Gerry Thomas made the company’s frozen dinner after seeing 260 tons of leftover frozen turkey in railroad cars after Thanksgiving in late 1953. Thomas originally thought of the idea of adding other familiar holiday foods to the frozen turkey, like cornbread, stuffing, and sweet potatoes. All of the aforementioned food was placed on an aluminum tray that was meant to be cooked in the oven. To help with the science behind the meals, Swanson’s bacteriologist Betty Cronin used her research to help heat the meat and vegetables at the same time while also killing food-borne germs.

1954 was Swanson’s first year of production. In that year, Swanson sold close to ten million trays. Shortly after the explosive success of Swanson’s TV dinners, companies like Banquet Foods and Morten Frozen Foods quickly joined the competition. One reason TV dinners came up in popularity was that many women were joining the workforce by the early 1950s, meaning that they didn’t have the time to cook elaborate meals.

Taking advantage of the spike in household television sets, Swanson sent out TV advertisements showcasing elegant, modern women serving Swanson’s meals to their families or even enjoying one themselves.

The next breakthrough in TV dinners came with Campbell Soup Company’s invention of microwave-safe trays, which made a 25-minute meal preparation session into one that can be done in a few minutes.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic has made a positive impact on TV dinners. Due to lockdown restrictions and overall fear and panic, Americans began to once again buy TV dinners. The American Frozen Food Institute released a study that Americans started to spend about 50% more on frozen dinners from April 2019 to April 2020.

Overall, ever since the invention of TV dinners, it only seems to have a positive impact on society. TV dinners made dinner easier and faster than ever before with constant innovation added on top.