- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

PHOENIX - This much is certain: When C.A. Swanson & Sons began selling a frozen turkey dinner with peas and sweet potatoes, the housewives of America snapped them up, and the TV dinner, with its three-compartment aluminum tray, soon became a symbol of postwar consumer society.

So when Gerry Thomas, the Arizona retiree often credited with inventing the TV dinner, died last month, it was widely reported as the passing of the man behind a piece of 20th-century Americana.

Since then, though, questions have been raised about whether the 83-year-old former Swanson salesman and marketing executive — and member of the Frozen Food Industry Hall of Fame — got too much credit.

Pinnacle Foods Corp., the company that now sells Swanson-brand frozen foods, considers Mr. Thomas the man who developed the concept of the TV dinner.

“We don’t have any reason to disbelieve that history,” said Kelley Maggs, a spokesman for the New Jersey-based company.

On July 30, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial calling Mr. Thomas “a charlatan.”

Betty Cronin, a 76-year-old former product developer for Swanson, said she does not think Mr. Thomas deserves credit. She helped developed the company’s fried chicken dinner and knew Mr. Thomas, then a salesman for Swanson. She said she does not understand how he came to be touted as the creator of the TV dinner.

Mrs. Cronin said that Clarke Swanson, one of the brothers who ran the company, worked on the tray design, and that many people in sales and marketing were called together to figure out how the meals would be sold.

Mr. Thomas himself claimed he came up with the idea for the three-compartment tray, coined the “TV dinner” name and developed the packaging that helped sell the dinners to a country fascinated by the new medium of television.

Mr. Thomas’ wife, Susan, said in an interview shortly after Mr. Thomas’ death July 18 that his contribution to the TV dinner was the marketing.

“If he was an inventor of anything, it was an inventor of slogans or names,” she said.

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