Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to cuisine (chefs, dishes, etc.) and whether they are true or false.
CUISINE URBAN LEGEND: Swanson’s TV Dinners were invented due to them trying to come up with a way to get rid of the large supply of Thanksgiving turkeys they got stuck with one year.
There is a famous quote that is most commonly attributed to Plato that states, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” This is a similar thought to the idea that the winners write the history books. In other words, whoever has the control of the historical narrative is the one who is going to get their version of events into the hands of the everyday person. That was definitely the case with Gerry Thomas, a former employee for Swanson who, when he passed away about a decade ago, had obituaries all over the world that said some version of his New York Times’ obituary headline, “Gerry Thomas, Who Thought Up the TV Dinner, Is Dead at 83” Perhaps Thomas WAS the guy who coined the term “TV dinner.” Perhaps Thomas DID come up with the idea for Swanson (a food processing company that began at the end of the 19th century) to get into the world of frozen dinners. Those things MIGHT be true. But what is definitely true is that Thomas got credit for these things primarily due to his ability to put his story out there constantly over the past thirty years of his life, continually telling the story of the creation of the TV dinner. Since he was really the only one talking (and he DID work at Swanson when they began producing TV dinners), his version of events has been accepted as gospel in a variety of major publications, including Time magazine.
His story of how Swanson got into the TV dinner business had a great hook, one that commenter Gavin thought would make for a good legend, namely:
TV Dinners were created because the company had a huge supply of leftover turkeys from Thanksgiving that were traveling around the country in railroad freezer containers. They were losing money on the storage so they had to come up with a way to sell them.
That’s precisely the story that has been told on many sites, magazines and newspapers over the years.
Here’s one take on the story from Smithsonian.com (but really, TONS of people have the same story):
In 1953, someone at Swanson colossally miscalculated the level of the American appetite for Thanksgiving turkey, leaving the company with some 260 tons of frozen birds sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. Enter the father of invention, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas, a visionary inspired by the trays of pre-prepared food served on airlines. Ordering 5,000 aluminum trays, concocting a straightforward meal of turkey with corn-bread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes (both topped with a pat of butter), and recruiting an assembly line of women with spatulas and ice-cream scoops, Thomas and Swanson launched the TV dinner at a price of 98 cents (those are Eisenhower-era cents, of course). The company’s grave doubts that the initial order would sell proved to be another miscalculation, though a much happier one for Swanson; in the first full year of production, 1954, ten million turkey dinners were sold.