The TV dinner was unleashed on Americans in 1953. The next year we ate 10 million of them. Frozen dinners weren’t necessarily new and Swanson’s offering wasn’t especially good. But it was the right idea at the right time and the reaction of the nation’s media tells us why.
The enthusiasm with which the TV dinner was greeted is captured in this review by Grace Warlow Barr in the Orlando Evening Star on July 14, 1954:
“Through the generosity of the local representative of C.A. Swanson and Sons, we had an opportunity last weekend to discover the magic of Swanson’s TV Fried Chicken Dinner. We were given SIX of these dinners, each tidily sealed in functional sectionized plates with tight aluminum foil cover. All you do is pop them in the oven, follow cooking directions, and you’re ready to eat! Lacking a TV, we took them over the T. P. Warlows’. We’re the literal type, and when we eat a TV dinner we want to be watching TV!
“The chicken dinners made a great hit, and the next night, the Warlow children insisted on using the same plates for dinner, carrying their meal out onto the patio.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that you can serve a whole meal with no more effort than turning on the oven. But so it is. One section of the plate holds a bountiful portion of fried chicken. There is a section filled with a vegetable medley, and the remaining section holds very delicious, creamy diced potatoes in a smooth sauce. The whole business is, of course, quick frozen, and it’s a fantastic example of American ingenuity and know-how. A salad, bread, a drink and dessert are all you need to add, and actually, you don’t really feel the need of a salad.
“For the gal who has a job, these TV dinners should prove a terrific boon. One friend of ours, who has a young son, tells us that these TV dinners have simplified things considerably for her. Usually it’s the son’s suggestion that she stop on the way home and pick up a couple of TV dinners.”
The 50’s were not known for expansive views of the roles of women in a family setting. So pundits were quick to point to mom as the key beneficiary of dinners that you don’t actually have to cook.
The Shreveport Times of Sept. 23, 1955 made that point:
“Perhaps you are the ‘one out of four’ women who trundles a grocery cart through the food market after working all day at a desk, behind a store counter or at a soda fountain.
“If so you will be looking for the best way to fit meal preparation into your already too-busy day. How about trying the ‘look ahead’ technique. It gives you extra time to make meals well-rounded…
“See how simple it is to serve complete hot meals with the help of frozen ‘TV’ dinners They are ready and waiting in your grocer’s freezer. You’ll find chicken, beef and turkey dinners complete with two vegetables in each. They need only heating to ready them for the dinner table.”
But not everyone was enamored with how the TV and TV dinners was impacting family life. Hal Humphrey, writing in the Oakland Tribune (July 28, 1955), had some concerns:
“In recent months, the frozen food packers have come along with the ready-to-serve ‘TV dinner,’ These come packed in aluminum tins which are divided into sections, similar to GI trays found in Army mess halls.
“They’re complete dinners, with meat, potatoes and vegetables, and they sell for as low as 89 cents. There’s no preparation necessary. You simple pop ’em into the oven for 25 minutes and voila! Mama brings the TV dinners into the living room, plops ’em on the TV trays. and the entire family gets a beautiful case of heartburn, not from the food but from watching Pinky Lee or an ancient ‘Our Gang Comedy’ and trying to digest both at the same time.
“Believe me, I’m not casting aspersions on the quality of the food in these TV dinners. As a matter of act, it’s fairly tasty. Nor do I mean to make light of those cultural TV shows I mentioned. It’s just that I’m against eating in front of the TV set.
“Most of us spend too much time watching TV anyway. Why ruin our stomachs as well as our dispositions? Mealtime used to offer us an excuse for getting away from the darned thing. Now they are trying to take that sanctuary from us.
“However, I suppose it’s still futile to stop progress. We probably will have to learn to live with this latest by-product of the TV age.”
In Florida they had some even bigger concerns as discussed in this article in the Fort Lauderdale News of Nov. 7, 1954. The headline was “Frozen Food Under Fire.”
“The heat’s on for frozen foods in Broward County.
“Dr. Paul W. Hughes, county health officer, and his staff of sanitarians will begin Monday to check into conditions on frozen food departments of markets and investigate the degree of cold maintained by refrigerated trucks.
“The county health officer’s interest in the sale and transportation of frozen foods resulted from reports of food poisoning from Swanson Fried Chicken TV dinners.
“Two Hollywood residents reported their illness to the health department and many others are known to become sick after eating the dinners but did not report it to authorities.
“Broward and Dade County health officers promptly placed a ban on the sale of any more of the fried chicken dinners and health officers of other counties in Florida were planning similar action.
“However, officials of the C.A. Swanson Company flew to Miami from Nebrasha and voluntarily withdrew all the fired chicken dinners from the markets.
“The blame was fixed by the health department on mishandling of the frozen packaged dinners and not on the original processing of the Swanson company.
“It is estimated there are nearly a quarter of a million dollars of the product in Florida, the only state in which they are sold. Swanson officials explain they were testing the reception of the fried chicken dinners here before making them available nation-wide.”
Turns out the reception was good even if the digestion wasn’t. This alarm was not enough to slow the spread of the fried chicken dinner nationwide as one of the company’s most popular.