TV dinners started with a mistake. In 1954, the frozen food company C.A. Swanson & Sons over-ordered for Thanksgiving and found themselves scrambling to figure out a way to sell more than 500,000 pounds of leftover turkey.
Gerry Thomas, a Swanson salesman who earned $200 a month, had an idea. Inspired by the metal meal trays used by airlines and the meal kits he encountered during his time in the military, Thomas developed a three-compartment tray that could hold a frozen dinner and keep each component separate.
He dubbed the product a "TV dinner," drawing on the growing popularity of the appliance at the time. "I figured if you could borrow from that, maybe you could get some attention," Thomas told the Associated Press in 1999. "I think the name made all the difference in the world."
Thomas was not the first person to come up with the idea of a portable, frozen meal. But Swanson's clever marketing made TV dinners an instant hit. The product featured a picture of a television on the packaging and was touted as a simple alternative to spending hours in the kitchen.
The meals flew off the shelves: More than 10 million units sold in the first year alone.