Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2005 Issue

Gerry Thomas - Inventor of TV Dinners

Tvdinner

Food for thought.


By Bruce McKinney

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A man who touched the lives of almost all Americans over the past fifty years died on July 21st, at the age of 83. He probably lived that long in part because he didn't like to eat what he invented - the TV dinner. He was Gerry Thomas, a salesman for C. Swanson and Sons and he developed the idea of single portion meals, wrapped in aluminum foil, which could be heated in the oven and served in 25 minutes and the idea caught on.

Young minds of course need to be nourished too and I can remember reading the TV dinner boxes while we waited for the Salisbury steak and fried chicken to be ready. I remember counting the letters in the longest words of the listed ingredients and even at eight could tell all these letters were hiding something and ever since have avoided ingredients that sound like dinosaur names.

Today we may watch more television than we did then but we are no longer so naive. The puppy we adopted fifty years ago has become the snarling monster that demands for 8 of every 30 viewing minutes that we buy, vote or hate something. Many can remember John Cameron Swayze and the Camel News Caravan. He had his ashtray right next to his script. Mr. Thomas's dinners date to that era. Our television entered the house in 1954 but was not immediately accorded a special place. Some people had them in their bedrooms and others in their basements but in 1954, when Mr. Thomas took the fateful steps that earned him a headline obituary across the country 61 years later, the place of television in our homes and lives was just coming into focus. He put televisions into living rooms by providing the key element in the "dining theatre" model, the TV dinner. Mr. Thomas, at least for some, changed people's orientation to TV for he created a meal for the working mother that let her relax even while the food was cooking. That made it possible to mix a high-ball and watch the news. I remember very clearly my Mother announcing that we are going to use the accumulating Empire Market Green Stamps to buy a matching set of TV trays and I even remember the trip to make this transforming purchase. Television, the exotic element we carried into the house with a burst of excitement a year earlier, was by 1955 starting its stealthy reconstruction of American family dynamics. To my question, "will we ever eat in the dining room again?" my mother smoothly replied "if we need to." Two meals later we were back in the dining room for three reasons: snow, an 11 inch picture screen and a set of chairs that leaned back while the TV trays required you lean forward.

But the TV dinners stayed with us. We just didn't eat them in front of the television. The very gradual breakdown of the nuclear family would continue. Life was starting to speed-up. Meals were becoming more condensed and in time only old timers would remember how it was in the beginning. One of them, Mr. Thomas, has died.

On ABE today I did a keyword search for TV Dinner and the first ones to come up cost the same as the first TV dinners: $1.00. So in case you are a throw-back to that era and both remember how to read and still like to, you have twenty pages of matches to consider.

As for Mr. Thomas' whereabouts tonight I wouldn't want to be his lawyer at the Gates of Heaven. I can hear God saying "If it's so good, why didn't you eat one? And of course Mr. Thomas says, "If that's what you're serving I'm at the wrong place."

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Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
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    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
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    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
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    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
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    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
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    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
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