Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2005 Issue

Gerry Thomas - Inventor of TV Dinners

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."

If you would like to listen to a recording, and have audio on your computer, click here: Listen

How you do feel about this audio link? Click here to tell us on the message boards.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions