There is some dispute over how Swanson Turkey TV Dinners were invented. The following is my version:
When: The day after Thanksgiving, 1953
Where: C.A. Swanson & Sons, a poultry supplier in Omaha, Nebraska
(Bob Walsh, an aspiring manager at the company, comes to his boss, Gilbert Swanson, with a problem. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and Bob has live turkeys that didn’t find a dinner table for the holiday. A lot of live turkeys. What to do with all those leftover turkeys?)
Bob (knocking on door frame): Ah, Mr. Swanson, sir? Do you, ah, have a moment, sir?
Swanson: Of course, of course, come in. Welch, isn’t it?
Bob: Ah, Walsh, sir. Bob Walsh.
Swanson: Of course, of course. Come in, Welch. You know my door is always open. That’s what I always say: “My door is always open.” Sit down, Welch, sit down. Now what can I do for you on this fine Friday after Thanksgiving?
Bob: Well, sir, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Thanksgiving was yesterday and…
Swanson: Yes, Welch, and?
Bob: It’s Walsh, sir.
Swanson: What is?
Bob: My name, sir.
Swanson: Is that what you came to talk to me about?
Bob: No, sir. It’s about the turkeys. The turkeys we didn’t sell for Thanksgiving.
Swanson: Yes, yes, what about them?
Bob: Well, ah, there’s a lot of them, sir.
Swanson: “A lot,” you say. (pauses) And what do you mean by “a lot”?
Bob (swallows): Two hundred and sixty…
Swanson: Well, Welch, I’m sure we don’t need to be concerned about 260 turkeys.
Bob: Tons, sir. Two hundred and sixty tons of unsold Thanksgiving turkeys.
Swanson (after a long pause): Close the door, Welch. (Bob does) Now. What’s this you’re saying?
Bob: We had a very successful breeding season, sir, very successful, but sales didn’t meet our projections. So this morning I’m reporting an overstock of 260 tons of turkeys.
Swanson: Two hundred and sixty tons. I see. (pause) And in terms of just pure numbers, Welch…
Bob: Well, sir, at an average weight of 25 pounds – and you know that’s our standard, sir, or as the boys in advertising say, “A 25-pound turkey on every table!” It’s, ah, twenty thousand…
Swanson: Twenty thousand? Did you say twenty thousand?
Bob: …eight hundred, sir. Twenty thousand eight hundred turkeys, sir. Give or take a turkey.
Swanson (after a long pause): Are you attempting levity, Welch?
Bob: No, sir.
Swanson: We have twenty thousand eight hundred Thanksgiving turkeys. Today is the day after Thanksgiving. This is a calamity. This is a catastrophe. This is – I don’t have a word bad enough for it!
Bob: Disaster, sir?
Bob: I mean, it’s not a disaster, sir. At least, I don’t think it is. I’ve been thinking…
Swanson: Not now, Welch. I have to think.
Bob: But I’ve been thinking sir, and I have an idea. An idea of what to do with all those turkeys – and even turn a profit, sir!
Swanson: I said not now, Welch. What I need is to find is something to do with all those turkeys, and somehow turn a profit.
Bob: But that’s what I’m saying, sir! I have an idea!
Swanson (mumbling): This is a disaster. And absolute disaster. Twenty thousand…
Bob: I’ve put some figures together, sir, and if you’ll just take a look…
Swanson: Welch, tell my secretary to get my brother on the phone.
Bob: Your brother, sir? You mean W. Clark himself?
Swanson: Yes, I mean W. Clark himself! Do I have any other brother? (Bob goes out to the secretary, then returns, closing the office door)
Bob: Sir, if you’ll just look at these figures, you’ll see – wait, better yet, let me tell you my idea. We cook all the turkeys – well, not all at once, of course – but we cook the turkeys!
Swanson: Cook the turkeys, you say. That’s very advanced thinking, Welch.
Bob: I’m not finished, sir! And we make gravy, and dressing, and mashed potatoes and maybe a vegetable. Carrots. Or peas. Yes, peas! Then we put it all together in individual metal trays that have sections, sir. Sections! Can you picture it?
Swanson: No, Welch, I can’t. I’m too busy picturing this disaster.
Bob: In the bigger section we put the dressing, and some sliced turkey, with gravy on top. Then in one smaller section, the peas. With butter on them. And in the other section, mashed potatoes. It’s one individual meal, sir! An individual turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Swanson (after a long pause): Did you say mashed potatoes, Welch? White mashed potatoes?
Bob: Yes, sir!
Swanson: I hate white mashed potatoes!
Bob: Then sweet potatoes, sir! Or no potatoes! I’m just trying to explain…
Swanson: Ah, sweet potatoes. Now you’re talking. My mother made the best sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving. I swear it was my favorite part of the meal. I remember…
Bob: Mr. Swanson!
Bob: The dinner, sir. The individual dinner.
Swanson: What about it?
Bob: So we make all the individual dinners, and here’s the magic: We freeze them. First, we put each one in a nice box with a picture of the wonderful turkey dinner that’s inside the box, then we freeze them. And housewives will buy them, and take them home and put them in their freezers, and then one night – just picture this, sir. One night, when Mom can’t figure out what to make for dinner, she opens her freezer and – viola!
Swanson: “Viola,” Welch?
Bob: Her dinner is already made! It’s in those nice boxes with the picture of the wonderful turkey and dressing and gravy and mashed potatoes…
Swanson: I thought we said sweet potatoes?
Bob: …Sweet potatoes, and peas with butter! And Mom says, “No cooking for me tonight. I have Swanson dinners right here in my freezer, all ready for me to heat and serve in just 25 minutes. My family will love them!”
Swanson: “Love them,” Welch?
Bob: The kids will love them because they’re delicious. And different. And…
Swanson: “Different,” Welch?
Bob: Yes, sir! A whole dinner right in its own little tray. No more plate for this and bowl for that, because the whole dinner is right there. Fun for the kids, and easy for Mom because after dinner you just throw the trays away. No dishes! In fact, if the family has a TV, they could have dinner in front of the TV. And…that’s how I, ah, came up with the name, sir.
Swanson: “The name,” Welch?
Bob: TV Dinners, sir.
Bob: TV Dinners! Experts are predicting that pretty soon every family in America will have a TV, and just think how exciting it will be to eat this new kind of dinner while you’re watching your new TV. I don’t think I’m overstating my case when I say this will revolutionize dinnertime as we know it.
Swanson (the secretary buzzes, informing Swanson that his brother is on the line): Tell him I’ll call him back. Now, Welch…
Bob: Walsh, sir. I’ve priced it out, sir, and we can sell Swanson TV Dinners for 98 cents and still make a profit. Just think – dinner for less than a dollar! (pauses) I’ll have to remember to tell that one to the boys in advertising: “Dinner For Less Than A Dollar!”
Swanson: Less than a dollar, you say? And we’d still be making a profit?
Bob: Absolutely, sir. And once our turkey TV dinners are a success, we can create more dinners like chicken, and Salisbury steak, and, and – with your permission, sir, I’m going to get the kitchen working on some sample dinners. I mean, TV Dinners. And the advertising boys working on the box, and –
Swanson: Hold on, now, just hold on. Don’t let’s get carried away with an idea, an idea that may have some merit, perhaps, but still just an idea.
Bob: Yes, sir.
Swanson: Now, leave those figures with me, and I’ll give it some thought. But – not a word about this to anyone. And I mean, anyone. Is that understood, Welch?
Bob: Yes, sir.
Swanson: Very well, then. And tell my secretary to get my brother back on the phone.
Bob: Yes, sir. And…sir?
Swanson: Yes, what is it? (the phone rings.)
Bob (softly): It’s Walsh, sir. (closes the door behind him.)
Swanson (ignores Bob and answers the phone): Clark? How are – yes. Well, I heard this morning that our Thanksgiving turkey sales fell below projections and… How far below? Well, considerably. And – yes, I know that, and… Yes, I know we have to do something with those turkeys. That’s why I’m calling. I had an idea about what to do with all those turkeys. A rather brilliant idea, if I may say so myself…
According to Smithson magazine, in 1953 Swanson sold 5,000 TV dinners. In 1954, their first full year of production, they sold more than 10 million TV dinners.