Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2005 Issue

Gerry Thomas - Inventor of TV Dinners

Tvdinner

Food for thought.


By Bruce McKinney

Listen

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>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

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