The popular American meal has its odd connections with Thanksgiving because of last-minute decisions. In 1953, the Swanson company’s frozen turkey supply exceeded the demand during Thanksgiving.
The company had to act fast in deciding what to do with excess turkey meat, and after a simple solution, the TV dinner was born.
Led by the partnership of a Swedish immigrant Carl A. Swanson, and John O. Jerpe, the then known Jerpe company began producing butter and dairy products in 1905.
Jerpe was the biggest poultry and eggs supplier during the war, but the company focused on frozen food, as the demands were very high during WW II. After the war, it was renamed, Swanson & Sons.
Almost a decade later, the Swanson company were to manufacture chicken and turkey pot pies. After Thanksgiving had passed, they were left with 26 tons of turkey and an indecisive standstill that could have cost the company a fortune.
It was during a sales trip to visit a company distributor, Gerry Thomas, an executive for Swanson, noticed a metal tray. He found out that Pan Am Airlines were using these trays for serving warm food.
He quickly got the idea. He borrowed the tray, divided it into segments, packaged it with vegetables, cornbread, potatoes, peas, and leftover turkey, and decided to capitalize this new food craze.
The Swanson company branded the groundbreaking idea to be known as “TV dinners”, because of their shape. Satisfyingly enough, just when the 1950s TV era was taking hold, the TV dinner proved to be a very fitting marketing fad.
By 1956, the Swanson company were selling 13 million of these new meals a year and around 4,000 employees and 20 plants were bought by the Campbell Soup Company.
Swanson also had the honors of sponsoring “The Name’s the Same”, a game show run by Robert Q. Lewis. The TV dinner had its fair share of commercial runs during the 1980s and 90s, with Mason Adams as the announcer.
Oddly enough, in an Associated Press article in 1999, Gerry Thomas was reluctant and humble to be called “the father of the TV dinner” and modestly asked the reporter not to call him that.
This sparked allegations as Thomas claimed that he only innovated the tray on which the food was to be served on.
Nevertheless, after his death in 2005, the acclaimed moniker stuck and the almighty TV dinner will always be remembered as a Thanksgiving invention and Thomas’ invention.