When ‘Bugs’ Birdseye left college after his family ran out of money, he took a job in Montana with an entomologist. His duties involved capturing small mammals so they could remove the ticks to research whether they were the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. After that he headed up to Newfoundland where he had a ranch raising foxes. It was there that he found the inspiration that would eventually lead to his induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Born Clarence, Birdseye was one of nine children growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. The nickname ‘Bugs’ came about in Amherst where he went to college and resulted from his fascination with insects. That later became ‘Bob’ which is the name he went by for the rest of his life. Birdseye’s claim to fame, and the reason why he is fundamental to the ultimate creation of the TV dinner, is as the inventor of the modern frozen food industry.
It all starts with some ice fishing up in Newfoundland. Fishing in super cold weather through very thick ice, Birdseye found that the fish he caught froze nearly instantly when brought to the surface. He also found that the fish tasted much fresher when thawed than the commercially available frozen fish of the time. The answer was “flash freezing,’ a technique the frozen food industry, including the TV dinner makers, use to this day.
Birdseye tried to make a business of this and started Birdseye Seafoods Inc. He went bankrupt. Undeterred he developed a technique to freeze between two surfaces and was granted a patent for his “double bell freezer.” He established the General Seafood Company, moved to Gloucester, Mass., and diversified into meat, fruit and vegetables. In 1929 he sold his company and its patent for $22 million to the company that would eventually become General Foods. They created the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company, a brand you’ll still find in your grocer’s freezer.
This guy was one prolific inventor. Founder of the W.L Maxson Corporation, his inventions ranged from a robotic airplane navigation device to toy building blocks. One of his most successful inventions was a gun mount that ended up being used by allied forces during World War II.
So how does he fit into the frozen food story? It all starts with Maxson’s backyard garden in his home in Orange, N.J. Apparently he grew a lot more cauliflower that he was ever going to eat, so he tried freezing some it. Bingo! Maxson became a frozen food scientist, trying out things like hard-boiled eggs and French fries. When he had guests over for dinner, he made be sure that the freezer was stocked with pre-made dinners so he could offer each guest, the beef, or the chicken, or the fish.
Given his military background, he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, and his success in selling to the military, he came up with the idea of selling his pre-made frozen dinners to the Naval Air Transport Service. His dinners had three sections, one meat and two veggies. He also invented an oven, the Maxson Whirlwind, that could be used in the air to heat the dinners. His oven could heat up to six frozen dinners in 15 minutes. The secret was a fan in the back of the oven, a technology that is similar to what is used today in convection ovens and air fryers.
When the war ended Maxson sold Pan American World Airways on the idea of selling his “Sky Plates.” He also hoped to sell them to consumers in grocery stores. Unfortunately Maxson died unexpectedly following surgery in 1947. His heirs had little interest in pursuing his frozen food ambitions. He is nonetheless considered the first person to commercially market what we would later come to call a TV dinner.
Gerry Thomas was a Canadian salesman who came south to work for the Swanson Company. One of the things he was pretty good at selling was himself. Good enough to get himself inducted into something called the Frozen Food Hall of Fame as the inventor of the TV dinner.
Here’s the Thomas story, as told by Thomas. In 1953 Swanson, which was a producer of canned and frozen turkey, had a slow Thanksgiving sales season and ended up with a 520,000 pound surplus of frozen turkey. While they were deciding what to do with it, it was kept criss-crossing the country on refrigerated rail cars to keep it from spoiling. Thomas had seen the trays used by Pan Am for pre-prepared meals and came up with the solution. The surplus turkey would be packaged as pre-cooked frozen meals. He claimed to have come up with the name TV dinner, the packaging that looked like a TV set and even contributed his grandmother’s recipe for the cornbread stuffing.
A 2005 Washington Post story offered this assessment of Thomas’ influence: “Gerald E. Thomas had one little idea that changed the sociology of the American family, encouraged the feminist movement, ignited the obesity epidemic and introduced countless Americans to something called Salisbury steak.”
But on further inspection, other Swanson employees and the principals of the firm would later question Thomas’s role, suggesting instead that the idea came from members of the Swanson family, the marketing department or other employees.
Thomas did eventually walk back some of his story, suggesting that the country crossing rail car tale was a “metaphor” for an annual problem faced by the company. He later acknowledged that he didn’t contribute the cornbread stuffing recipe but just the idea to use cornbread. And by the way, Thomas’ wife says he never ate TV dinners.
We will probably never know who to believe here but it’s a good story. Good enough that the current owners of what was once Swanson, Pinnacle Foods, continue to offer it up.
While Thomas may or may not be the father of the TV dinner, Betty Cronin is the mother of the TV dinner. No matter whose idea it might have been, she was the person in the Swanson organization who was tasked with making it work.
Cronin came to Swanson in the early 50’s as a bacteriologist after having earned a degree in bacteriology from Duchesne University. She would later become director of product development. Cronin had a long career at Swanson and then at Campbell Soup, the company that acquired Swanson, where she was director of cooking soups and later director of Campbell’s Microwave Institute.
Her challenge at Swanson in 1953 was to figure out the recipes for the meats, vegetables and potatoes so that they could be frozen and then heated simultaneously. Her next challenge was the fried chicken dinner. She had to determine, in her words, “What kind of breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good? That was the biggest challenge.”
Figuring out the kind of breading to use was not the only problem as Cronin told the Allentown Morning Call in 1994.“”When we introduced the dinners in 1954, overcoming women’s feelings of guilt for serving frozen foods to the family rather than making them from scratch was one of the biggest hurdles we faced.”
Like Thomas, Cronin claims she never had a TV dinner in her home. But as for the Thomas story Cronin told the Los Angeles Times “Gerry Thomas had nothing to do with the TV dinner.”
Gilbert and Clarke Swanson
There is one other claimant in the Swanson organization for the title of father of the TV dinner. Two, in fact, and they are the Swanson family members themselves.
Gilbert and Clarke Swanson were the sons of Carl Swanson, a Swedish immigrant who founded the company. Carl died in 1949 and the two sons took over the company. One of their first initiatives, in 1951, was the Swanson frozen pot pie, both chicken and turkey. Two years later came the TV dinner. Whose idea was it. Theirs, say the Swanson boys, who claim to have come up with the concept and the processes needed to produce the dinners.
In 1955 they sold the company to Campbell Soup, cementing the family fortune. Upon completing the sale the brothers put out this comment: “Precooked frozen foods are sparking one of the most important developments in the food industry. Our sales over the past several years reflect a swiftly growing acceptance for quick and easy meals in the quality manner. The alliance with Campbell provides the broad operational base needed to seize the opportunities ahead.” Each assumed a VP position at Campbell. They renamed the family business Swanson Enterprises, which became a holding company for real estate, trusts, foundations and the like.
The Swansons were a prominent family in Omaha known for both their philanthropy and for lavish entertaining. Gilbert, the family patriarch, married Roberta Fulbright, sister of U.S. Senator William Fullbright. The two of them fought long and often.
Roberta died in 1959. Clarke passed away two years later. As for Gilbert, we can perhaps get a glimpse of his personality by learning that he communicated with his children by memos which he would messenger over to them.