© Denzil Green
TV Dinners are a frozen meal in a tray. The meal generally consists of a meat, a potato and a veg, which arguably can be said to be a balanced meal.
The tray has compartments, to keep each of the food items separate, which is part of the meal’s appeal. Even people who don’t realize how much they like having the food separate will, upon opening it and finding a stray frozen pea that made its way over to the frozen potato compartment, may find themselves pushing it back with finger or fork into its proper place before heating the meal.
The trays used to be made of sturdy foil and covered with tin foil. Now, the trays are made of heat-resistant plastic or specially-treated cardboard and top-sealed with cellophane.
To prepare the meal, you remove it from the cardboard box it came in from the store, follow the directions about when and how much of the top covering to remove or cut back, and heat the tray in either a conventional oven, toaster oven or microwave oven.
Some TV Dinners will include another department for a small dessert.
Over the years, the portion sizes of the food items TV dinners has come to be seen as “small”, though in fact they are probably all the calories one needs in a meal. Still, as meal size expectations increased in America, often two TV dinners were cooked up to serve to a man. In response to this, the Swanson company introduced their “Hungry Man” TV dinners, with larger portion sizes.
Some people like to blame the TV for the demise of the America dining room, but was it the TV, or the TV dinner? In the 1950s when TV dinners hit the home market, teenagers were developing their own lives in the evening apart from the family, and a quick meal of a TV Dinner enabled them to still have the evening. TV Dinners were also very convenient for women entering the workforce but still needing to put a meal on the table.
In 1923, Clarence Birdseye developed a process of flash-freezing food in waxed cardboard boxes.
By 1944, nearly 70 percent of American homes had refrigerators, but most of these didn’t have freezers. Fridge-freezers had been introduced in 1939, but their availability was delayed by the Second World War.
Maxson Food Systems
In 1944, Maxson Food Systems Inc. was founded by William L. Maxson (1889-1947.) His wife was Mary Steely Maxson. The couple had three children: William, Mary and Sally.
An Annapolis graduate, William had been out of the military since 1935, but still had connections. He started selling three-part frozen meals for troops flying overseas with the Naval Air Transport Service. He called them “Strato-Plates”. There was meat, potato and veg on three-compartment blue plastic-coated plates, topped with a round cardboard top, and joined at the sides by a plastic ring.
The ovens on planes to heat them with were heavy, power-hungry, unreliable and slow. To get around this problem of serving his frozen meals, William invented a small oven to be used on airplanes to thaw and heat the meals. He called it the “Maxson Whirlwind Oven.” It ran on a 24 volt DC motor, which blew hot air through the box. It thawed and heated the meal 30 minutes faster than it would have taken in a conventional home oven. Each oven did six of Maxson’s trays at a time. 
By August of 1945, he offered 6 different varieties:
- ham, candied sweet potatoes, spinach;
- veal cutlet, a potato patty, asparagus;
- hamburger patty, French fries, green beans;
- beef steak, asparagus, hot breads;
- Swiss steak, apple sauce, Lima beans;
- roast lamb, peas, bread pudding.
William had the food prepared, and the frozen meals assembled, in Queens Village, New York. He boasted that supervising everything was a chef from Sweden who at one time had worked for Queen Marie of Romania.
But the war ended in 1945, cutting military sales before civilian flight sales had a chance to take off for civilian passengers on Pan Am planes.
Pan Am was ready to launch the Maxson’s frozen food system in their new clipper America planes in January 1949: “‘Its all in having the right equipment,’ says Lois. Her galley aboard the huge new double-decker clipper was worked out by engineers of Pan American, the Boeing Airplane Company .and the Maxson Food System, who decided the job could be done only one way.” 
For civilians, he called his frozen meals “Sky-Plates”.
William also started a trout farm in April 1946 with 25 ponds in Sheffield, Massachusetts, with the idea of eventually making frozen trout a choice, too. His plans were to have it be the largest fish farm in America.
William died at Baptist Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts after an operation on 14 July 1947. His frozen meals had just started making it as far as speciality frozen-food stores [who would have freezers for them, whereas grocery stores might not at the time], who were advertising them directly to the consumer.
The last consumer ad for them CooksInfo.com has been able to find for them dates from 1947. In June 1949, Trans-Canada Airlines, the Canadian state-owned civilian airline, claimed that it was about to be the first to serve frozen meals on board in North America. [Pan Am was not allowed to fly domestic flights within the US until 1979.]
The company closed sometime shortly afterward. His children didn’t appear to be interested in the business. They appear to have cashed in on everything, even selling the uncompleted fish ponds in December 1947.
FrigiDinners TV Dinners
Jack Fisher’s FrigiDinners (frozen dinners) were sold first to bars and taverns. The choices were:
- Chopped beef with mashed potatoes and fresh garden peas
- Swiss steak with mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes and fresh garden peas.
- Roast turkey with giblet gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes and fresh garden peas.
- Fish stick dinner with baked macaroni in cheese sauce and fresh garden peas.
They were available as far west as Ohio. The Gartner Inn in Elyria, Ohio, proudly advertised throughout the month of June, 1950 in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram that it was serving Frigidinners (the entertainment was Cowboy Phil and the Golden West Girls; there was no cover charge.)
Russell’s Tavern in Troy, New York offered FrigiDinners in March 1950, served in the restaurant for between 75 cents and $1.00 (your choice of 9 different kinds.)
By 1955, FrigiDinners started to be sold through grocery stores. In October 1956, Loblaws in Warren, Pennsylvania offered them for 74 cents each for the twin pack that served 2 (Swiss steak, turkey or pot roast). In November 1956, “Your Friendly Central Markets” in Pittsfield, Massachusetts sold them for 59 cents each.
One-Eyed Eskimo Dinners
The first big sellers of frozen meals to the home market were Albert and Meyer Bernstein. In 1949, they formed a company they called Frozen Dinners, Inc., and called their frozen meal a “One-Eyed Eskimo.” They sold at first to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. Their dinners were in three-compartment aluminum foil trays, and sold for 59 to 89 cents each (49 cents for the Salisbury steak.)
The choices were:
- Turkey, sage dressing, giblet gravy, buttered green peas, candied sweet potatoes
- Beef pot roast, buttered green peas, mashed potatoes au gratin
- Swiss steak mignon sauce, buttered green peas, Delmonico potatoes
- Chicken, gravy, egg noodles, Delmonico potatoes, green peas
- Salisbury steak, gravy, buttered mixed vegetables, whipped creamed potatoes
By 1950, they had sold over 400,000 frozen dinners. In 1952, they formed the Quaker State Food Corporation, and expanded their sales to east of the Mississippi into California and New Mexico. By 1954, they had sold over 2 ½ million frozen dinners. But, their “One-Eyed Eskimo” frozen dinners disappear from newspaper grocery store ads towards the end of 1957.
Swanson TV Dinners
1956 Swanson TV Dinner Advertisement
The meal included: a chicken breast portion, a wing,
a drumstick or thigh, with mashed potatoes
and mixed vegetables.
C.A. Swanson & Sons of Omaha, Nebraska was founded in 1886 by Carl A. Swanson, an immigrant from Sweden. The company was founded with two other partners and called at first the “Jerpe Commission Company.” They sold butter and poultry.
One partner died, and then Carl bought the other one out in 1928. During the Second World War, sales on poultry and eggs boomed to the military. Around 1945, Carl renamed the company to C.A. Swanson & Sons.
Carl died in 1949. His two sons, Clark and Gilbert Swanson, took over. In 1950, they introduced a frozen chicken pot pie.
In 1953, they overestimated the demand they would have for frozen turkey at Thanksgiving. They had some left over — “some” meaning 260 tons (520,000 pounds / 235,868 kg) of it (some sources say 270 tons / 540,000 pounds / 244,940 kg.) They didn’t have anywhere to store it but in 10 refrigerated rail cars, 52,000 pounds (23,586 kg) in each. The train cars had to be kept moving from Nebraska to the east coast and back again to generate the refrigeration.
Or at least, that was the story for decades.
It was told by a Gerry Thomas, born 17 February 1922 in Seward, Nebraska. A salesman, Gerry Thomas had seen the single compartment aluminum foil food trays that Pan Am Airways were testing to use to heat passengers’ food in, with the idea of introducing hot meals on flights. Thomas said that he figured out a tray with three compartments, so that each food item could be in its own compartment. He suggested that the marketing of the frozen dinner be tied in with having dinner while watching TV. He gave his ideas to Clarke Swanson, who assembled a team of sales and marketing people to work on the idea.
Around 2002, though, Betty Cronin (born c. 1928), a bacteriologist who would later work on the introduction of the Fried Chicken line, said that Thomas had very little to do with any of it; that the Swanson brothers had come up with all the ideas themselves. In 2003, Thomas was challenged by the Los Angeles Times about his story, and he admitted that the tale of the surplus turkeys, complete with the refrigerated train cars going back and forth, was “a metaphor.” Thomas wasn’t actually a fan of the TV Dinners himself. He was a passionate cook, and preferred to cook his own meals for himself and his wife Susan.
In any event, the marketing idea became to sell them as a meal to have while watching TV. The boxes the frozen meal trays were packaged in were designed to look like wood-grain television sets, complete with graphic representations of television volume and channel dials on them. Where the TV tube was, there was a picture of the meal inside.
The meals went on sale as TV Dinners at the start of 1954, for 98 cents each. Customers got turkey, buttered peas, sweet potato and cornbread stuffing. At the time, there were 33 million TV sets in America.
Swanson authorized a first run of 5,000 frozen dinners, but within 10 months, they’d sold 10 million of them. By the end of 1954, they sold over 25 million of them. For his marketing idea, Thomas got a $1,000 bonus, and a pay increase from $200 to $300 a month.
- 1954 — Swanson sold off their butter and margarine businesses to focus on frozen meals;
- 1955 — Swanson is bought out by Campbells in April;
- 1955 — The next varieties added were fried chicken, meatloaf and Salisbury steak. The fried chicken batter was developed by Betty Cronin.
- 1958 — Production was moved by Campbell’s to New Jersey;
- 1960 — Swanson added a fourth compartment to allow a heated dessert;
- 1962 — Swanson dropped the name “TV Dinners” to enforce the idea that they could be eaten anytime of day;
- 1970 — Gerry Thomas retired. His final position at retirement was Director of Marketing and Sales. He moved to Phoenix, Arizona;
- 1973 — Swanson Hungry Man dinners introduced;
- 1986 — The aluminum tray was replaced with plastic–crystallized polyethylene tray, to allow microwave cooking;
- 1998 — Swanson loses ground to other frozen meal competition. Campbells created a new company called “Vlasic International” and put Swanson along with other brands into that company. The Swanson name is on a 10-year licence;
- 2001 — Dessert was dropped;
- 2001– Vlasic goes bankrupt;
- 2001 — licence to Swanson name is acquired by Pinnacle Foods Corporation o.
- 2005 — Gerry Thomas died 18 July 2005 from liver cancer, aged 83.
- 2009 — mid-2009. Original 10-year licencing term expired. Pinnacle renegotiated with Campbell’s. Pinnacle would call the Swanson Hungry Man dinners just “Hungry Man”, dropping the Swanson name. It would retain the Swanson name licence for regular frozen dinners and pot pies. Campbell’s would have the use of the Swanson name for other products such as Swanson Broth.
 Meal-a-Minute is Served in This Mile-High Kitchen. Walla Walla, Washington: The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Tuesday, 4 January 1949. Page 6.
 Maxson also invented a multiplying machine, toy building blocks, a robot navigator to compute flight positions (which Howard Hughes used in 1939 for his round-the-world flight), a mounting mechanism for anti-aircraft guns, and an automatic price calculator for gasoline pumps.
Literature & Lore
1954 Swanson Turkey TV Dinner Box
(Click for larger)
“Soon You’ll Buy 5-Minute Meals and Just Throw Away the Dishes:
The pre-cooked frozen dinners which this housewife is putting in the oven will be thawed and cooked within 15 minutes. The lacquered cardboard plates in which they come are treated to withstand heat and eliminate dish washing.” (photo caption)
NEW YORK—Next time your husband starts getting under foot in the kitchen, don’t shoo him off. It may be that he has a million-dollar idea that will save housewives from slaving over a hot stove.
That’s how W.L. Maxson hit on his idea of pre-cooked frozen blue plates which could be bought at the corner grocer’s, slipped into the oven and be ready to serve in 15 minutes. And best of all, there’s no dish washing involved. The food comes in lacquered cardboard plates which can be disposed of after the meal.
“I always liked puttering around in the kitchen,” admits the former naval lieutenant and inventor of a highly successful machine gun mount, automatic computing gasoline pump and specialized aeronautical devices.
“A couple of years ago when my wife and I were wondering what could be done with the surplus vegetables from our Victory Garden, I decided to experiment with frozen foods.”
Two years later he introduced a variety of one-plate meals which the army and navy bought out completely for air crews assigned to long flights and for wounded flown from the front to hospitals at home.
Today Maxson’s Queens Village, N.Y. plant is concentrating on six blue plate combinations which airmen voted their favorites. But when his firm is given the green light for civilian production, there are 300 or more mouth-watering concoctions they can put out.
In processing the foods, Maxson explains, meats and vegetables are cooked separately to within five minutes of being done. Then they are arranged on the cardboard plates and frozen. It takes 10 minutes to thaw them out and five minutes for actual cooking.
Housewives who have found it difficult to satisfy everyone’s special preferences will have no problem when these frozen plates are made available. Father can have hamburger, string beans and shoestring potatoes, while Junior can enjoy roast chicken, dressing and asparagus, and Mary will be content with ham steak, pineapple ring and candied sweets — all in the same meal.
The compact, stainless steel whirlwind oven which Maxson has designed to cook his blue plates cost no more than a toaster to operate. And though there may be four or six different combinations cooking at once, the oven is so constructed that the flavor of one won’t permeate the other.”
— Rosellen Callahan, NEA Staff Writer. Soon You’ll Buy 5-Minute Meals and Just Throw Away the Dishes. Council Bluffs, Iowa: Council Bluffs Nonpareil. 2 September 1945. Page 12.
‘This last conflict brought out more new ways of preserving food and new food processes than ever before,’ he [Ed.: Lawrence A. Johnson, President, Johnson Supermarkets] said. To illustrate, Mr. Johnson served three complete meals which had been frozen and reheated. The menu included Southern fried chicken, French fries and fresh peas.
This process was developed by the Maxson Food Systems of New York. The meals were prepared for Navy personnel aboard planes which had units to heat the food.
‘It won’t be too long before you will be able to walk into a store and buy a complete frozen meal, go home and heat it, and then throw away the paper plate,’ Mr. Johnson declared.” [Photo Caption: ‘Members of the (Syracuse) Lions Club sample a frozen meal, prepared by Lawrence A. Johnson’]
— Fennell, Edward T. Complete Frozen Dinner Server: Lion Club Told Food Supply to Be Ample. Syracuse, New York: The Syracuse Herald-Journal. Saturday, 16 February 1946. Page 5.
“An ‘electronic oven’ for heating pre-cooked frozen meals quickly and efficiently has been developed by General Electric engineers in Syracuse. The unit heats these meals in about 75 seconds to an average temperature of 160 degrees F.
The ‘electronic oven’ is being operated in tests at Maxson Food Systems, Inc. headquarters at 480 W. 34th in New York city. Until field tests have been completed, it is not planned to produce the equipment in large quantities, G-E officials explained.
Application of the unit as presently designed would be limited to heating pre-cooked frozen foods and would not extend to general cooking as by conventional methods. It is not a home unit, G-E emphasized.
Transmitter division engineers in the company’s electronics department have been using pre-cooked frozen meals prepared by Maxson in their experiment with the ‘electronic oven.’ Such meals, for example, have included Swiss steak with gravy, potatoes and lima beans; roast sliced lamb with gravy, potato patty and lima beans; sliced turkey with mashed sweet potatoes and peas with butter sauce; beef pot roast with peas and potato patty.” — Electronic Oven Developed by GE. Syracuse, New York: The Post-Standard. Monday, 19 May 1947. Page 12.
“Maxson (meal-on-a-plate) individual frozen dinners; 1 main dish and 2 vegetables; heat 25 minutes and serve; 80 cents to $1.35; 5 dinners to choose from. Shadowlawn Frozen Food Lockers, Denton.” — Advertisement in Denton Journal. Denton, Maryland. Friday, 3 October 1947. Page 7.
“Maxson Complete Meals. Meat, Vegetable and Potato — Heat and Eat. Tenderloin Steak. Green Beans and French Fries — Sirloin Steak — Swiss Steak, Lima Beans and Potatoes. Frostbite [Frozen Foods].” — Advertisement in Portland Press Herald. Portland, Maine. Friday, 14 February 1947. Morning edition. Page 24.
“Something New, Something Different, Something Delicious. Try Our FRIGIDINNERS. Individually in Aluminum and Foil — Take Some Home or Enjoy Them Here. Choice of Several Meats and Seafoods, all with potatoes and vegetables. Inexpensive and convenient — just heat for few minutes and they’re ready to serve. GRAYSTONE HOTEL. Don’t Forget Our Special Entertainment Every Thursday Night.” — Advertisment in Bedford Gazette. Bedford, Pennsylvania. 19 May 1950. Page 8.
“In the works, for later-on marketing, are complete frozen dinners. A Philadelphia plant, now expanding into the Los Angeles area, produces dinners for two with menus including spaghetti-and-meatball casserole (about 50 cents) to roast turkey with stuffing, giblet gravy, candied sweets [Ed.: potatoes] and peas (about $1.30). The U.S. Forestry Service has been testing these Frigidinners when dropping supplies for fire fighters in areas unaccessible except by air.” — Little, Joe. Dollars and Sense column. Long Beach, California: The Independent. Sunday, 27 July 1952. Page 33-A.
“A fresh turkey dinner, cooked weeks ahead of time in Winnipeg will be available on any of the 40-passenger North Star aircraft operated across Canada by Trans-Canada Air lines beginning Monday. The first air line in North America to serve pre-cooked, quick-frozen meals on its domestic lines — this is the claim made by T.C.A.
It is inaugurating this service through the co-operation of Aero Caterers, whose plant at 1794 Main Street will supply most of the packaged meals for the whole trans-Canada service.
A preview of the air line service was displayed Thursday at the Aero Caterers plant. Into an oven went several small, sealed aluminum trays, each containing a pre-cooked, quick-frozen main course for a meal, kept at sub-zero temperatures.
When the trays were opened 15 minutes later, visiting reporters were tempted by tenderloin steak, turkey, sausages, omelettes, etc. and other tasty dishes, all deliciously fresh and tasting like the real home-cooked article. Appropriate vegetables and sauces accompanied each meat dish in the same individual tray.
‘We are particularly proud of our quick-frozen omelettes,’ said A. S. Jarvis, service manager of Aero Caterers.
W. Fabro, assistant director of passenger service for the TCA, said the air line is switching over to quick-frozen meals, because they are ‘one hundred per cent better than the casserole meals we have been serving.’
On board each North Star aircraft operated by the air line there will be a small high-speed Maxson oven, Mr. Fabro continued. Fourteen meals will be taken from zero temperatures in a refrigerator to 392 degrees in 15 minutes in this oven. A bell rings to let the stewardess know that the meals are ready to serve.
‘These meals have already proved to be a marked success on our trans-Atlantic and Caribbean runs.’ said Mr. Fabro.” — Doug Young. Fast Freeze Meals: Aerial Dinners More Tasty. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Winnipeg Free Press. 17 June 1949. Page 1.
“In the early days, Cronin recalls, she traveled everywhere from Louisiana to Canada, working with suppliers of ingredients for the TV dinners. Although Swanson sought to use the best and freshest foodstuffs, it wasn’t always possible: Top-grade peas were too fragile, fresh herbs were full of bacterial contamination from the soil, and some Canadian chickens were “too scrawny,” she says. — Kevin Riordan. TV dinners celebrate 50th amid changing channels, times. Courier-Post: Cherry Hill, New Jersey. 25 November 2004.
LeBeau, Mary Dixon. At 50, TV dinner is still cookin’. Boston, Massachusetts: The Christian Science Monitor. 20 November 2004.
Smith-Spark, Laura. Death of a ‘TV dinner’ salesman. BBC News. 21 July 2005. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4703523.stm on 27 July 2005.
Roberts, Michele. Who really invented TV dinners? Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto Star. 5 August 2005.
Ross, Lilian. Defrosted Dinners. Talk of the Town Pages. New York: The New Yorker. 4 August 1945.
Rivenburg, Roy. False tales of turkey on a tray. Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles Times. 31 July 2005.