July 30, 2005 by

Gerry Thomas

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Categories: Business

In an effort to rid his company of surplus turkey, Gerald Ehrmann Thomas tied together entertainment and food in a manner that would inadvertently affect the way Americans ate for the next 50 years. He created and named the “TV Dinner.”
A marketing executive for C.A. Swanson and Sons, Thomas was visiting a distributor when he saw a single-compartment metal tray that was being developed to serve hot meals on airplanes. Recalling his five years in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, and the way his mess kit used to mix food together, Thomas created his own tray, one that divided foods into three compartments. He then devised a marketing plan for the meal and pitched it to his bosses.
They loved the idea.
The first Swanson TV Dinner contained turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas. Sold for $1.29, each dinner could be baked in the oven in less than 30 minutes. Ten million TV dinners were sold the first year of national distribution.
Although there is some debate over who truly invented the TV dinner, Thomas’ version hit the U.S. market at just the right time. Women who were entering the work force or becoming less interested in domestic activities appreciated its quick cooking time. Singles and lower-income workers liked getting an entire meal for one low price. And children enjoyed having the ability to choose what they ate for dinner, especially after 1960 when Swanson added a small dessert to each tray. The original TV dinner tray resides in the Smithsonian Institute next to the leather jacket worn by the Fonz in the TV show “Happy Days.”
Thomas received a $100 raise and a $1,000 bonus for his invention, and was inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame. In 1999, his handprints were stamped in cement next to the classic three-compartment tray and placed on display at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Maxim magazine even named him one of the “50 Greatest Guys of the Century.”
“He was very proud of the TV Dinner, but it never crossed his mind that he would ever get any notoriety out of it. He just ate up the publicity. He was a real ham,” said Thomas’ wife, Susan.
As a young man, Thomas earned a Bronze Star for helping to break a Japanese code during the Battle of Okinawa. The Nebraska native remained with Swanson after the Campbell Soup Co. took over in 1955, and worked his way up the corporate ladder to director of marketing and sales. After retiring in 1970, he spent his final years running an art gallery in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and doing consulting work.
Thomas died on July 18 of liver cancer. He was 83.
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