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Swanson Song: Remembering the TV Dinner

“…Big and hearty slices of moist, tender Swanson turkey with grand giblet gravy…and special cornbread dressing…and fluffy whipped sweet potatoes…with golden Swanson butter (Mmm!) and garden-fresh peas with more butter (Mmmmm!). Mother Murphy, luck-y me! My wife uses Swanson TV turkey dinners. And make your husband lucky, too. Get Swanson TV turkey dinners, Swanson TV fried chicken dinners, Swanson TV beef dinners…”

— Jack Narz on The Bob Crosby Show, 1955


You can’t find Swanson TV dinners on grocery shelves anymore. You can, however, get your hands on their direct descendant: The Swanson Hungry-Man. 

I stopped by a wall of Hungry-Man boxes in the frozen food aisle. “EAT LIKE A MAN,” they decreed. And manly they were: boneless fried chicken, Salisbury steak, pork rib-shaped patties, and a line of “SPORTS GRILL” entrees. Every package bore a proud label that promised over thirty grams of protein. 

Hungry-Man was testing my masculinity. Would I, like any red-blooded American with a Y-chromosome, affirm my manhood with a purchase? Or would I retreat to the Lean Cuisine section because I found a coupon in my purse? I brought home a Hungry-Man chicken meal.

Dinner was a somber affair. I slit open the plastic film covering the tray using a large knife. I microwaved it without the assistance of a woman. And I ate alone, mashed potatoes and brownies all, in silence and in darkness. My biceps inflated. My acne worsened.  

Fifty years after Swanson aired its TV dinner commercial, it released another one for Hungry-Man. The difference in tone is startling. Unlike Jack Narz’s spiel to 1950s housewives, this new commercial takes place in a construction zone, where a couple of male workers are sipping pink smoothies and yogurt. As they head to the bathroom together (to keep each other company), they pass a coworker holding a Hungry-Man chicken leg. He asks, “Where are you ladies going?”

Where did the ladies go? Swanson completely shifted its marketing focus from the savvy housewife to the desperate bachelor. A product that once prided itself on innovation and elegance now emphasizes the sheer volume of food it contains. Somehow, the TV dinner has fallen from grace as both an economic commodity and as a status symbol. 

To answer this question, we’ll have to dive into the history of the TV dinner, from its meteoric rise in the mid-twentieth century to its slow demise in the new millennium. But this is not just a gastronomic trip down memory lane. It’s a reflection of our relationship with new technology, the struggle between convenience and class, and even the reshaping of the American family. And like any story worth telling, it begins with 260 tons of surplus turkey.

In the winter of 1953, Swanson executives faced a big problem. They had massively overestimated America’s enthusiasm for Thanksgiving dinner, and now had a train full of frozen turkeys travelling around the country. Since the train’s refrigeration systems only ran with the train moving, they were hard-pressed to find a quick way to turn their poultry into profit. Salesman Gerry Thomas pitched a brilliant solution: repackage the turkey in a reheatable, aluminum tray, with separate compartments for sweet potatoes and peas. At a time when women entered the workforce in droves but were still expected to put dinner on the table, the frozen dinner promised revolutionary convenience.

A question arose: how do you market this cutting-edge product? According to Thomas, he arrived at the name “TV dinner” from two directions. First, the shiny, compartmentalized tray bore some resemblance to television sets. Far more importantly, “TV dinner” attached the product to television itself—a brand-new consumer technology on everyone’s minds. In 1955, over half of American households owned a television. The “TV” name was accessible enough to be marketable but still exclusive enough to be a middle-class status symbol.  

The TV dinner embodied everything that people adored about the TV. They both promised a state-of-the-art experience and an unparalleled level of leisure, made even better when enjoyed at the same time. Swanson capitalized on America’s fascination with technological innovation: If man could split the atom and broadcast moving pictures nationwide, why couldn’t he (she) prepare a turkey dinner in 25 minutes? The plan was an immediate hit. Swanson sold over ten million units in their first year. American families fell in love with eating frozen dinners while watching I Love Lucy.

Swanson’s target audience was obvious. They were selling food, and food—just like cleaning and making children—was a woman’s business. Advertisements for the TV dinner revolved around a cultural theme of helping women better “service” their husbands. Swanson provided for the “Hurried Housewife” scrambling to put food on the table before her spouse returned from work. Swanson came to the rescue when he brought a hungry friend with him unannounced. A number of men even wrote angry letters to the company as their wives stopped preparing home-cooked meals. But this was a small price to pay for the magic of the TV dinner experience. Finally, she could sit down with her family to catch the start of the evening news.

Early Swanson TV dinner advertisements focused on women tending to their families (Photo credits: Kathy Padden, 2013)

As strange as a bourgeoisie appetite for glorified airplane food might sound, it’s hardly without precedent. In 1921, the Taggart Baking Company similarly wowed the American public by debuting Wonder-Bread, one of the first pre-sliced loaves. And In 1958, Japanese businessman Momofuku Ando introduced the world to instant noodles under the name “Chikin Ramen,” which locals considered a luxurious novelty item. What made the TV dinner unique was its marketing. It fed on the blooming television culture for sustenance. For better or worse, Swanson had tied the TV dinner’s fate to its namesake.

It wouldn’t be fair to accuse Swanson of becoming totally stagnant after their initial success. In the 1960s, they tried their hand at appealing to America’s emerging cosmopolitan taste with a line of “International Dinners”—everything from Mexican “fiesta meaty sauce” to Polynesian “chow mein.” But in reality, they still use much of the same production process for TV dinners to this day; it’s a tried and true formula, after all. Swanson was slow to adapt to the new diet fads of the 1970s and even the breakout superstar of the modern kitchen, microwave ovens. While these missteps certainly cost the company, their Achilles heel was also their greatest asset: television itself.

What makes for good TV? In the 1950s, the answer was Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Rose’s Twelve Angry Men. Early broadcasts catered to a limited and affluent audience that could afford a television set. Over the next decade, networks transitioned from critically-acclaimed showcases to a more “blue-collar” variety of sitcoms and rural dramas. It became less and less impressive to display a television set in your house. Programming reflected this technological democratization by appealing to increasingly “lower” common denominators. Ratings continued to trend upward, but so did art critics’ noses. Television no longer dazzled the American public.

At the same time, the core market for TV dinners was under attack. The 1950s and 60s boasted a record high percentage of married Americans. This was the age of the “nuclear family”: a breadwinning man, his domesticated wife, and their two children. TV dinners fit snugly in the idealized family life. Around the time of the moon landing, however, the proportion of single Americans started to skyrocket. Young people grew increasingly comfortable with living alone or with an unmarried partner. Rising housing costs also made the traditional family experience unfeasible for many.  

Swanson now faced another big problem. Their target demographic was slipping away, and so was the culture that had kept them alive. By 1963, they had already dropped the “TV dinner” moniker in an attempt to appeal to a wider market, but the connotation was still there. TV was becoming cheap and tired, and with it, Swanson’s dinners. 

In 1973, Swanson bit the bullet and shifted its focus completely to the emerging bachelor demographic. No longer were they wooing sensible women with peas in butter sauce. They now appealed to the men who had to feed themselves, substituting motherly love with an extra chicken patty. Thus, the Hungry-Man was born.

Behold the Hungry-Man: Salisbury for the spartans, meatloaf for the machismo, turkey for the testosterone-inclined. After a long day of chopping logs and body slamming your buddies, you’re ready to scarf down a whole pound of food. Only Hungry-Man gives you the second serving built right in. TV dinners have always emphasized cost and convenience, but Swanson had long abandoned the notion that their food could compete with a home-cooked meal. Their commercials centered on excessive calories, sex appeal, and pro wrestling. 

Could there have been an alternate reality where TV dinners continued to attract middle-class families? Probably not. Aside from the demographic changes between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, TV dinners were simply too convenient. They relied on novelty and techno-mysticism to sustain their popularity. But just like sliced bread and cup noodles, consumers began to recognize that easy food means accessibility to everyone, and so their attention reverted back to expensive, time-consuming meal preparation.

The TV dinner, along with rockabilly music and McCarthyism, has long since died. Its successor, however, is currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Frozen food sales have seen a resurgence due to changing public perceptions about its nutritional value and taste. Multiple brands now advertise “organic” and “farm-fresh” ingredients, while others cater to portion-conscious shoppers. More dramatic is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the market; in the first few months of the virus outbreak, frozen food sales jumped 70% across American grocery stores. It is no longer considered a culinary breakthrough, but rather an essential product for the economy and public health. Things are looking up for the TV dinner’s grandchildren.

As I scraped the last specks of mashed potato off my Hungry-Man tray, a thought persisted in my mind. Sure, the packaging assured me that I was eating a real man’s food, but its contents were virtually identical to that of the Swanson TV dinner over seventy years ago. I was tasting history—a tray of vacuum-sealed chicken and an assortment of sides, cozily packed in their own compartments as they always have been.

In another time—in another life—this is the meal that would have greeted me after a day in the office, presented by a wife who rarely left the house. I would sit down in the living room with her and my two children, who would scream at me that we would miss The Howdy Doody Show. And as we sat and ate from our trays, eyes glued on the television screen, fallout shelter underneath our feet, we would all be wondering the same thing: What will they think of next?


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