As with 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
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
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
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
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.
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.
- The birth of the TV dinner started with a mistake - How 260 tons of Thanksgiving leftovers gave birth to an industry, in Smithsonian Magazine, Dec. 2004.
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
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.
- Pittsburgh Freezers - By David Bortner, Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Spring 2010. "Major players in bringing these meals into supermarkets and homes were Pittsburgh natives the Bernstein brothers."
- 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.
Jack. How TV dinners became tray chic in How the
Cadillac got its fins: and other tales from the annals
and marketing. New York, HarperBusiness, c1994: p. 197-200.
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.
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.
Frederic D. The epic of the TV dinner. American Heritage
of Invention and Technology, v. 9, Spring 1994:
Laura. Something from the oven: reinventing dinner
in 1950’s America. New York, Viking, 2004: p. 17-20.
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.
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.
more print resources...
Search on "cold
storage," "cookery frozen
foods," "frozen foods," or "home freezers"
in the Library of Congress Online
Swansonmeals Web site.
Dinner, from US Department of Agriculure Web site.
At the freezer
case in a grocery store - from the Imaginary World Web site.
Swansonmeals Web site.