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Question Who "invented" the TV dinner?

Answer

Several individuals developed the TV dinner.

Convenience foods. Warren K. Leffler, photographer, 1965. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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.

An opened, uncooked TV Dinner.External link Sir Beluga, photographer, March, 2018. Wikimedia Commons.

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 continued 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.

The Reagans eating on TV trays in the White House residence, November, 1981. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration.

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.

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