In 1953 someone at Swanson Foods overestimated the number of turkeys needed for Thanksgiving. What Swanson was left with was 260 tons of frozen bird sitting in refrigerated rail cars — and then the rail cars had to be run from Nebraska to the east coast and back to generate refrigeration. A salesperson, Gerry Thomas, came up with an idea to emulate the airline practice of serving pre-prepared food in a tray and presented it to the company.
The Los Angeles Times investigated the story in 2003 and was able to get Thomas to admit that the story about the trains running back and forth between Nebraska and the east coast was only meant to be a “metaphor”.
According to a Library of Congress-related website, Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist working for Swanson at the time says it was the Swanson Brothers who came up with the concept. Ms. Cronin worked on the project to roll-out the new product, making sure all items in the tray would cook in the same amount of time (synchronization). She also developed the fried chicken batter.
Swanson Foods first mass-produced frozen Thanksgiving dinners in 1954, consisting of turkey, cornbread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes (with a pat of butter on top of the peas and potatoes). The dinners were assembled, packaged and sold for 98 cents – and a big success. Some ten million dinners were sold the first full year of production.
Swanson was not the first company to invent frozen dinners, however — that honor goes to William L. Maxson, owner of Maxson Food Systems Inc. His dinners consisted of three items and were first produced for military use in overseas flights, calling them “Strato-Plates”. Maxson was an inventor too – knowing that airplanes had weight limits he invented a small convection oven called “Maxon Whirlwind Oven”, cutting cooking times by 30 minutes as compared to a conventional oven.
Near the end of World War II the need for his product diminished as fewer military overseas flights were required so Maxson turned to the airline industry. In 1944, Pan Am began serving Maxson “Sky-Plates” and soon other airlines followed suit. Maxson began exploring the possibility of marketing his frozen dinners to the general public, but after an operation in 1947 he suddenly died. His children had no interest in his business and Maxson Food Systems was closed soon after his death.
In the late 1940s, Jack Fisher came up with “FrigiDinners” and marketed them to bars and taverns and eventually in grocery stores. Brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein established Frozen Dinners, Inc. in 1949 and marketed their three-compartment frozen dinners under the name “One-Eyed Eskimo”. The product took off and in 1952 they founded Quaker State Food Corporation and expanded their market – by 1954 they had sold over two and a half-million frozen dinners.
Swanson was the first company to trademark the name “TV Brand Frozen Dinners” in 1954. So what was first known as a frozen dinner became associated with the new American pastime of television through aggressive and clever marketing (the boxes were made to look like a television set) – now it wasn’t just a “frozen dinner” it was a “TV Dinner”. How convenient it was to bring home dinner, pop it in the oven, set up the TV trays and eat dinner while watching your favorite shows!
By 1960, Swanson added another compartment for dessert (apple cobbler, brownie) to their frozen dinners and then another food company, Banquet, came up with their own offerings priced lower than Swanson’s. Remember them – fried chicken, salisbury steak, veal parmagian, meatloaf …. mmmmm! The 1950’s and 1960’s were a boon for the frozen dinner industry until fast food restaurants came on the scene and became more popular.
Do you think that conveniences like the invention of frozen dinners, and then the branding by Swanson as “TV Dinners” was a positive or a negative thing in regards to family life?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.