Were TV Dinners Invented Due to Swanson Having Too Many Thanksgiving Turkeys Left Over?

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.

Is it TRUE, though?
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Did the Authors of Curious George Escape From the Nazis on Bicycles With a Copy of the Manuscript?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to children’s literature and whether they are true or false.

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE URBAN LEGEND: The authors behind Curious George built bicycles to escape from the Nazis, along with a copy of their original manuscript for Curious George.

In 1941, husband and wife team Margret and Hans Reyersbach (he shortened his name to Rey for his nom de plume, going by H.A. Rey) released their children’s book, Curious George.

The book was an instant success and has never been out of print since it first came out. However, the road that the Reys took to getting their book published was simply amazing, as they actually managed to escape Paris right ahead of the Nazis on bicycles literally built for two!
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Was the Famous Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima Photograph Staged?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about the world of photography and whether they are true or false.

PHOTOGRAPHY URBAN LEGEND: Joe Rosenthal’s photograph, “Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima,” was staged.

As we end Memorial Day this year, I thought it would be nice to clear up a bit of confusion about one of the most famous war photographs of all-time (heck, one of the most famous photographs of all-time period), Joe Rosenthal’s photograph “Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima,” a shot of five United States Marines and a United States Navy corpsman raising the United States flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

The photograph was an instant classic, but over the years, Rosenthal has been accused of staging the photograph.

Is that true?
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Was Chicago First Nicknamed the “Windy City” Because They Talk Too Much?

Here is the first in a series of examinations into urban legends related to newspapers and whether they are true or false.

NEWSPAPER URBAN LEGEND: Chicago was first dubbed “the windy city” as a reference to how much they talked.

It’s not so much of an occurrence nowadays, but years ago, it was quite common for newspapers from different cities to rile each other up by writing negative things about each other. These little “wars” helped drive circulation, as it became a matter of city pride for people to read in THEIR local paper about how stupid the people were in those OTHER cities. This would especially pick up when there was a debate over where to hold a major event. In the early 1890s, one such event was the 1893 World’s Fair, which was set to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christoper Columbus “discovering” America. It was a big to do to get the Fair for your city, and there was a big rivalry between the New York newspapers and the Chicago newspapers over who should get the Fair.

One newspaper editor in particular, Charles Dana, of the New York Sun, was very much hated in Chicago for all the nasty things he said about the city. One of these things, allegedly, is that Chicago should be called the “Windy City,” not for the winds off of Lake Michigan, but because they TALKED so darn much!

“The Windy City,” of course, remains the practically official nickname for Chicago. But did the name really come about from an insult?
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Did Mattel Really Make a Barbie Friend Named “Wheelchair Becky”?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about toys and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all toy urban legends featured so far!

TOY URBAN LEGEND: Mattel initially produced a friend of Barbie’s called “Wheelchair Becky.”

Mattel certainly is no stranger to awkward moments over the decades that they’ve produced Barbie dolls. After all, they’ve done so many versions of the doll that they are almost bound to screw up now and again. I’ve even covered one of these instances in the past, when Sleepover Barbie came with a diet book that advised girls simply “don’t eat.”

This brings us to the case of Barbie’s friend, Becky, who is in a wheelchair.

The website “Climbing Every Mountain” (but really, this information has popped up a number of places”) discussed the doll…

In 1997, Mattel ignored even the basic “People First” language with Wheelchair Becky. When a little girl with cerebral palsy complained, they renamed the doll Share-a-Smile Becky. Most advocates would say, “Becky” would have been enough.

Is that true?
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Did a Video Game Company Once Sue Viacom For Ruining the Star Trek Franchise?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: A video game company once sued Viacom for, in effect, ruining the Star Trek franchise.

As we have seen numerous times over the years, there is a delicate balance between artistic freedom and the more commercial aspects of show business. One of the more shocking examples was when CBS wouldn’t continue with Cagney and Lacey unless one of the leads was replaced with a more “feminine” actress. However, even more on point with today’s legend is the strange situation that ended up with the legendary Neil Young being sued by his own record company for breach of contract because they claimed that he was intentionally not making “commercial” music. Think, then, about what if you were a company whose products were based on another company’s artistic output and you, too, felt that their output was not commercial. What do you do? That was the basis for the video game company Activision actually suing Viacom over “ruining” the Star Trek franchise.

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Was Furby a Spy?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about toys and whether they are true or false.

TOY URBAN LEGEND: The National Security Agency banned furbies from their offices for fear of the toys recording confidential information.

Back in 2015, Samsung’s Smart TV caused a bit of a stir when it was revealed that the voice activation feature, which allowed users to control the television through their voice (you know, like, “raise the volume,” “put on AMC,” etc.). The issue was that the company itself gave users the following warning:

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”

It really wasn’t much of a big deal, as it wasn’t like the television was just listening in. It was more a case of Samsung just being overly cautious with their warnings.

However, this reminds me of a hilarious piece of information from the late 1990s, when the National Security Agency (NSA) banned Furbies from their offices for similar fears of being secretly recorded!

Read on to see whether furbies were really spies…
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Did Playboy Cancel a Nude Spread for Phyllis Diller Because it Was “Too Sexy”?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to architecture and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the magazine urban legends featured so far.

MAGAZINE URBAN LEGEND: Playboy canceled a nude spread for Phyllis Diller because it was “too sexy”

One of the very first female stand-up comedians to become famous nation-wide, Phyllis Diller had a reliable shtick that she continually worked all the way up until her final stand-up performance, when she was 85 years old (she passed away a decade later in 2012). She would make fun of her appearance and her lifestyle (in the early days, it was about how bad of a housewife she was) and she had crazy-looking hair.

For the release of her 1967 film with Bob Hope, Eight on the Lam, she even got written up in actual newspapers about beauty parlors picketing her film over her hair…

(Of course it was a gag, but it was a good enough gag that newspapers around the country picked it up as actual news)

A famous legend has popped up regarding Diller. As the story goes, she posed nude for Playboy, but the spread was “too sexy” so it was never published. Is that true? Read on to find out (plus to see a photo from the photo shoot!)
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Was There a “Nude” Cheat Code in the Original Tomb Raider Video Game?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to video games and whether they are true or false.

VIDEO GAME URBAN LEGEND: There was a “nude” cheat code in the original Tomb Raider video game.

One of the most famous video game characters of all time is Lara Croft, the archaeologist hero of the Tomb Raider series of video games (developed by Core Design and published by Eidos Interactive), which debuted in 1996 for PCs, Sega and Sony PlayStation.

Besides being an awesome hero, Lara Croft also gained a good deal of fame from hormone-driven adolescent (and sometimes older than adolescent) video game fans who liked her physical appearance. This has led to a persistent urban legend – was there a cheat code in the original Tomb Raider game where you could cause Lara Croft to fight in the nude?

Read on to find out!
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Did Marlon Brando Urinate Onstage to Upstage Another Actor?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about theater and whether they are true or false.

THEATER URBAN LEGEND: Marlon Brando urinated onstage to upstage another actor.

Reader Robert S. wrote in to ask me to find the truth behind a famous theater anecdote. He wasn’t even positive WHO the story was about, just that it involved an actress threatening to upstage another actress without even being ON stage (she manages to pull it off by using tape to adhere a glass to a table so it looks to the audience like it is going to fall over at any moment – she then leaves the stage for the other actress, who now no one is paying attention to because they’re all looking at the glass, hence being upstaged without being onstage). I was able to narrow the story down to the great Tallulah Bankhead, who had the story told about her a number of times, to the point of it even making it into Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes. However, it is so vague that I can’t confirm or debunk it actually happened. I’ve certainly never seen anything concrete either way. However, while researching THAT tale of upstaging another actor, I came across a case of Tallulah being upstaged by the young Marlon Brando (seen here together…


) that was so hilarious that I figured I just had to share it with you all…
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