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An early print ad for the ultimate in 1950's convenience food.  Image from the Swansonmeals 50th Anniversary Celebration Web site.

Thomas, Gerry

(c. 1922-2005.07.18) Inventor of the TV Dinner.

  Lived in Paradise Valley
Died in Phoenix

Nebraska born Gerry Thomas was a marketing executive for CA Swanson and Sons of Omaha, Nebraska in the early 1950's when his company faced a turkey problem.  Gerry's employer, then a leading wholesaler of poultry, had a 270 ton surplus of post-Thanksgiving turkey sitting in 10 refrigerated railway box cars.

Inspiration.  Inspiration struck when Gerry was visiting the Pan American Airways kitchens in Pittsburg.  He noticed a metal tray being tested for hot in-flight dinners.  As frozen poultry legend goes, Gerry conceived the idea of adding two additional compartments to the metal tray so that an entire meal could be heated and served in one unit.

Gerry told his bosses, the Swanson brothers, of his idea.  The Swansons were encouraged by the success of the frozen pot pies they introduced in 1951, and jumped on Gerry's idea.  Gerry borrowed the name for the frozen compartmentalized meals from a new medium, and the "TV Dinner" was born.  At the time, Gerry didn't even have a television.

Birth of an icon.  Swanson produced 5,000 of the TV Dinners for a regional introduction in 1953.  Sales were brisk and Swanson debuted the dinners nationally in 1954. At first reluctant to add a new frozen item because of limited freezer space, grocers quickly caught on.  In a mere 10 months, ten million Swanson TV Dinners moved from the grocer's freezers in search of their proper location in front of the nation's black and white television screens atop wobbly TV trays.

The appeal was speed, cost and convenience, not haute cuisine.  The nation was headed into the fast food era--the McDonald brothers had just erected their first ever golden arches, on Central Avenue in Phoenix--and Swanson was about to capitalize big time on the trend.  For a mere 98 cents, and 25 minutes of cooking time, the harried housewife could serve a three course meal. 

Turkey, gravy and peas.  The initial offering had an aluminum tray with a large central triangular compartment filled with slices of turkey over corn-bread dressing and topped with gravy.  Two smaller triangular compartments held buttered peas on one side of the entree and sweet potatoes on the other.  Aluminum foil covered the tray.  It was all slipped in a cardboard box printed to look like a television set--complete with knobs--showing a picture of the cooked meal.

Recognition of the inventor.  The Swanson brothers were so pleased with Gerry's idea that they gave him a $1,000 bonus, and a 50% increase in pay�from $200 to $300 per month.  He was eventually promoted to sales manager, then marketing manager, and finally director of marketing and sales.  The frozen poultry accolades did not stop with his retirement to Arizona in 1970.  He was elected to the Frozen Food Hall of Fame in Orlando, FL, and his three-compartment aluminum foil tray was placed in the Smithsonian in 1986.  In 1999, the Swanson company sent Gerry to the Chinese Theater (once Graumen's, and more recently Mann's) in Hollywood.  There he would sink his hands into a block of cement to commemorate the TV dinner�s 45th birthday.

Iconoclasm.   According to no less authority than the Library of Congress, the first complete frozen dinner was manufactured by the W.L. Maxson Co. of New York in 1945.  It consisted of a meat entree, a vegetable and potato in compartmentalized paperboard trays treated with Bakelite resin.  The meals were sold to the military commercial airlines where they reheated on the plane for passengers.  Maxson's owner died before his company's invention could achieve popular success and the product never made it to the retail market.

In 1952 complete frozen meals appeared in grocer's freezers for the first time.  They were produced, again according to the Library of Congress, not by Swanson, but by Quaker State Foods under the label "One-Eye Eskimo."  At nearly the same time, Frigi-Dinner also started producing a similar product.  But it was Swanson with the catchy name that captured the market and the myth.

Even Gerry's legendary status at Swanson has been challenged.  Some say that Gilbert and Clarke Swanson came up with the concept of the TV dinner and their marketing and advertising teams developed the name and design of the product.

Only one thing seems not to be challenged.  Those ten refrigerator cars of turkey carcasses somehow ended up starting a nationwide TV eating tradition which would disturb epicures for decades to come.

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