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Question:

    Who “invented” the TV dinner?

Answer:    

    Several individuals developed the TV dinner.

Like many creations, the story of the development of the TV dinner is not straightforward. Many people and companies played a role in the development of the concept of a complete meal that needed only to be reheated before eating. The invention of the TV dinner has been attributed to at least three different sources, primarily Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc.

Maxson Food Systems, Inc. manufactured the earliest complete frozen meal in 1945. Maxson manufactured “Strato-Plates” – complete meals that were reheated on the plane for military and civilian airplane passengers. The meals consisted of a basic three-part equation of meat, vegetable and potato, each housed in its own separate compartment on a plastic plate. However, due to financial reasons and the death of their founder, Maxson frozen meals never went to the retail market. Some feel that Maxson’s product does not qualify as a true TV dinner, since it was consumed on an airplane rather than in the consumer’s home.

Following in the footsteps of Maxson Foods Systems was Jack Fisher's FridgiDinners. In the late 1940's FridgiDinners sold frozen dinners to bars and taverns. Frozen dinners did not take off, however, until the Bernstein brothers came on the scene.

In 1949, Albert and Meyer Bernstein organized Frozen Dinners, Inc., which packaged frozen dinners on aluminum trays with three compartments. They sold them under the One-Eyed Eskimo label, and only to markets in the Pittsburgh area. By 1950, the company had produced over 400,000 frozen dinners. Demand continuted to grow, and in 1952 the Bernstein brothers formed the Quaker State Food Corporation. They expanded distribution to markets east of the Mississippi. By 1954, Quaker State Foods had produced and sold over 2,500,000 frozen dinners!

The concept really took hold in 1954 when Swanson’s frozen meals appeared. Swanson was a well-known brand that consumers recognized, and Swanson launched a massive advertising campaign for their product. They also coined the phrase TV Dinner, which helped to transform their frozen meals into a cultural icon.

But this is where different stories begin to emerge. Until recently, the most widely credited individual inventor of the TV dinner was Gerry Thomas, a salesman for C.A. Swanson & Son in 1953. For example, the American Frozen Food Institute honored him in their "Frozen Food Hall of Fame" as the inventor of the TV dinner. However, his role as the inventor is now being disputed.

Conversely, Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist who was also working for the Swanson brothers at that time, asserts that it was the Swanson brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, who came up with the concept of the TV dinner, while their marketing and advertising teams developed the name and design of the product. Cronin also worked on the project, taking on the technical challenge of composing a dinner in which all the ingredients took the same amount of time to cook, also called synchronization.

So who really invented the TV dinner? It depends on your definition. One thing is for sure, though: the first company to use the name and successfully market the TV Dinner was Swanson.

Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • 500 Years of American Food: 1950-2000+ - Although the blurb on the TV dinner is brief, this site includes lots of information about the evolution of American food and eating habits, with accompanying snapshots and advertisements.
  • At 50, TV Dinner is Still Cookin - This article was printed in the Christian Science Monitor on November 10, 2004. It credits Gerry Thomas with inventing the TV dinner.
  • Defrosted Dinners - The New Yorker Archive reprinted this article from August 4, 1945. Lillian Ross reports on Maxson’s brand new frozen dinners, and gives a great description of the technology involved.
  • The Food Timeline - Lynne Olver, a reference librarian from the Morris County Library, created the food timeline. This site is a good starting point for food history questions.
  • Practically Edible: TV dinners - Article about the history of tv dinners.
  • Swanson: the Original TV Dinner - Click on history to open the time line, print ads, TV dinner commercials, and fun TV dinner facts.
  • Who invented frozen food? - A brief introduction to the history of frozen foods.

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Anonymous. A visit with Betty Cronin, the "mother of tv dinners." Frozen Food Age, v.42, March 1994: p. 16-17.
  • Frozen dinner is back. Modern packaging, v. 27, March 1954: p. 134-5, 325.
  • Hillery, Victor. Ma's revolt: New chapter heralded by the swift rise of complete frozen meals. Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4, 1955: p. 1 & 2.
  • Mingo, Jack. How TV dinners became tray chic in How the Cadillac got its fins: and other tales from the annals of business and marketing. New York, HarperBusiness, c1994: p. 197-200.
  • Mouchard, Andre. Frozen in time: fifty years ago, the TV dinner appeared and changed the way America thinks about the family meal. Orange County Register, Jun. 20, 2003: p. Accent.1-Accent.3.
  • Phipps, Robert G. The Swanson story: when the chicken flew the coop. Omaha, NE, Carol and Caroline Swanson Foundation, 1977. 100 p.
  • Rivenburg, Roy. A landmark idea, yes, but whose? Tracing the invention of the TV dinner opens a can, er, tray of worms. Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2003: p. E1 & E4.
  • Schwarz, Frederic D. The epic of the TV dinner. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, v. 9, Spring 1994: p. 55.
  • Shapiro, Laura. Something from the oven: reinventing dinner in 1950’s America. New York, Viking, 2004: p. 17-20.
  • Swetnam, George and Charles A. Locke. Albert Bernstein and Meyer Bernstein in The Bicentennial history of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. v. 3. Pittsburgh, Historical Records Association, 1955: p. 942-948.
  • Voorhees, Don. What’s the connection between TV dinners and television? In Why does popcorn pop? Seacaucus, N.J., Carol Pub. Group, c1995: p. 195-196.
  • Ziemba, J.V. Frozen dinners [favorable future is seen]. Food industries, v. 20, Oct. 1948: p. 1434-1437.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "cold storage," "cookery frozen foods," "frozen foods," or "home freezers" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

photo of an early Swanson TV dinner box.
From the Swansonmeals Web site.

Photo of a frozen dinner
Frozen Dinner, from US Department of Agriculure Web site.

phto of a man bending over a freezer case inthe grocery store
At the freezer case in a grocery store - from the Imaginary World Web site. 

Ad from 1950's showing  woman unpacking  frozen dinners from grocery bag, saying, "I'm late - but dinner won't be."
From the Swansonmeals Web site.

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  August 23, 2010
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