Pre-prepared frozen meals pre-dated the Swanson “TV dinner,” but it was Swanson who brought the aluminum tray — previously only seen in taverns and airplanes — into the home.
They were motivated by opportunity and necessity. The necessity went something like this, or so the story goes: After the 1953 Thanksgiving holiday, Swanson found themselves up to their ears in turkey. They had overestimated demand, and there they were, with 260 tons of frozen turkey and the next bird holiday 364 days away. So, they slapped together a frozen turkey dinner, with peas and mashed potatoes, and held their breath.
The opportunity was the meteoric rise of living room television sets. In 1950, only 9% of American households had TVs. By 1953, 45% of households had one. The next year, that number would rise to 56%. Swanson’s overstock of turkeys occurred at exactly the same moment that owning a television became the new hot thing. So, Swanson tied their advertising directly to TV watching, inventing the phrase “TV dinner.”
Rumor is that Swanson wasn’t optimistic, but the dinners outsold their expectations. They planned to sell 5,000 turkey TV dinners that first year, in 1954, but they ended up selling 10 million.
So, if you celebrate Thanksgiving and are eating a TV dinner tonight instead of a whole bird, know that you, too, are part of a true American tradition.Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.