Thanksgiving Fun Facts: TV Dinners and Mr. Potato Head

In a strange coincidence, I heard two origin stories today, both related to the Thanksgiving holiday.

The first has to do with a comment my oldest son made about the creation of TV dinners.

According to the most widely accepted account, a Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas conceived the company’s frozen dinners in late 1953 when he saw that the company had 260 tons of frozen turkey left over after Thanksgiving, sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. (The train’s refrigeration worked only when the cars were moving, so Swanson had the trains travel back and forth between its Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast “until panicked executives could figure out what to do,” according to Adweek.) Thomas had the idea to add other holiday staples such as cornbread stuffing and sweet potatoes, and to serve them alongside the bird in frozen, partitioned aluminum trays designed to be heated in the oven. Betty Cronin, Swanson’s bacteriologist, helped the meals succeed with her research into how to heat the meat and vegetables at the same time while killing food-borne germs.

The second has to with a remark made by Cecily Tynan, a local TV weather person and one of the hosts of the annual broadcast of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade. One of the floats in today’s “parade” was Mr. Potato Head, and Cecily shared the following fun fact:

On April 30, 1952, Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television. The campaign was also the first to be aimed directly at children; before this, commercials were only targeted at adults, so toy advertisements had always been pitched to parents. This commercial revolutionized marketing, and caused an industrial boom. Over one million kits were sold in the first year. In 1953, Mrs. Potato Head was added, and soon after, Brother Spud and Sister Yam completed the Potato Head family with accessories reflecting the affluence of the 1950s that included a car, a boat trailer, a kitchen set, a stroller, and pets called Spud-ettes. Although originally produced as separate plastic parts to be stuck into a real potato or other vegetable, a plastic potato was added to the kit in 1964.

Who knew you could learn such trivia on a holiday? I guess learning never takes a day off.

8 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Fun Facts: TV Dinners and Mr. Potato Head

  1. Yeah! Two things that have been around longer than me. For such a simple idea, Mr. Potato Head was awfully popular at the time.

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  2. Love these origin stories. The original Buffalo Wing was born under similar circumstances as the TV dinner. Just a smart business owner trying to sell something he had way too much of. Great post, Jim! Hope you are well and healing!

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