It might be the best example ever of making lemonade when life gives you lemons.

In 1953, someone at the Swanson food company completely overestimated the American appetite for Thanksgiving turkey. By 1954, the company was left with 260 tons of frozen birds. What could they do to recoup their losses?

Necessity being the mother of invention, an enterprising Swanson employee named Gerry Thomas came up with the idea to put the turkey, along with potatoes and peas, into an aluminum tray, like the ones used for meals on airplanes.

Still, some in the Swanson company dispute Thomas' claim and say it was the Swanson brothers who invented the meals.

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That's when the marketing guys and gals (think Don Draper and Peggy Olson from "Mad Men") stepped in and ensured the success of the prepackaged meal by giving it a name that capitalized on the hottest trend in America — television. In 1954, owning a television was considered a status symbol. The industry was growing and the company wanted its new product to piggyback on the wave.

The new product would be called a TV dinner and be packaged in a box that resembled a television set. It left a mark on the culture profound enough that all these years later, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, we'll mark National TV Dinner Day.

Marketing for early TV dinners included reassurances to housewives that they were serving quality food. Flickr / Special to The Forum
Marketing for early TV dinners included reassurances to housewives that they were serving quality food. Flickr / Special to The Forum

The original marketing campaign for the product showed a well-dressed June Cleaver-esque mom taking a TV dinner out of a grocery store while her husband sits reading the newspaper. The ad copy reads, "I'm late, but dinner won't be."

Women applauded the convenience, and the dinners flew off the shelves. Approximately 5,000 units were sold at 98 cents a piece.


However, not everyone was thrilled. Some husbands even wrote nasty letters to Swansons for getting their wives out of the kitchen. Still the TV dinner was a hit. The surplus turkey was gone.

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By 1960, Swanson added desserts to their dinners, including itty-bitty brownies and apple cobbler (responsible for generations of kids burning the roofs of their mouths). By the 1970s, the first Hungry Man meals were created to serve those with bigger appetites. Football player Mean Joe Greene was an early spokesperson.

By the 1980s, manufacturers made TV dinner trays microwavable, and additional varieties of meals were created to answer consumer demand for healthier foods and ethnic food choices. Sales of frozen meals saw growth nearly every year from 1954 to 2008. By 2009, sales of frozen meals were starting to taper off as customers claimed "freshness" of food was of greater importance.

Other holidays this week

  • Monday, Sept. 9: Teddy Bear Day
  • Tuesday, Sept. 10: Ants on a Log Day
  • Wednesday, Sept. 11: Hot Cross Bun Day
  • Thursday, Sept. 12: Video Games Day
  • Friday, Sept. 13: Stand up to Cancer Day
  • Saturday, Sept. 14: Cream Filled Donut Day
  • Sunday, Sept 15: Cheese Toast Day