How 260 Tons of Thanksgiving Leftovers Gave Birth to an Industry

In 1953, someone at Swanson grossly miscalculated the level of the American appetite for Thanksgiving turkey, leaving the company with some 260 tons of frozen birds sitting in 10 refrigerated railroad cars. Enter the father of invention: Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas. Thomas was a visionary who was inspired by the trays of pre-prepared food served on airlines. Ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and concocting a straightforward meal of turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes, he recruited an assembly line of women with spatulas and ice cream scoops, and launched the first TV dinner. At a price of 98¢ each, a whopping 10 million turkey dinners were sold the first year in production, and Swanson couldn’t have been happier. The first tagline used by the company to promote their TV dinners was: “I’m late, but dinner won’t be.” Every housewife in America was in love with Swanson. Much has changed since then. Having invented the form, Swanson retains only 10% of the annual $1.2 billion frozen dinner market. Back in 1962, the company dropped the “TV” from its product label, and with the advent of microwave ovens, the aluminum tray was replaced by paper. However, those who were there at the beginning, when meals and Uncle Miltie fatefully merged, will always think of TV dinners as one of the great hits of television's early years.