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Swanson is a brand of TV dinners, broths, and canned poultry made for the North American market. The TV dinner business is currently owned by Pinnacle Foods, while the broth business is currently owned by the Campbell Soup Company. Current TV dinner products sold under the brand include Swanson's Classics TV dinners and pot pies, and the current broth lineup includes chicken broth and beef broth.
Carl A. Swanson (1879 – 1949) was a Swedish immigrant who worked on a farm in Blair, Nebraska, until he moved to Omaha. There, he worked in a grocery store where he came into contact with John O. Jerpe, who owned a small commission company, in which, Swanson would become a partner in 1899. Initially, the Jerpe Commission Company purchased eggs and cream from local farmers. In turn, they processed the eggs, made butter from the cream and sold these products to distributors and charged a commission to the farmers. With Swanson as a partner in the company, it began to expand. The Jerpe Commission Company began to sell chicken, turkey, and other meat. Swanson would eventually buy the company from Jerpe and rename it to C.A. Swanson and Sons, where his sons Gilbert and Clarke had joined the business.
After the passing of Carl Swanson in 1949, his sons began manufacturing frozen oven-ready chicken and turkey potpies in aluminum trays. Gerry Thomas, who was an executive of Swanson Company, went to visit a distributor of the company who fortified in prepared in-flight food. Upon this visit, he noticed the airlines foods were packaged in aluminum trays that could be heated in a convection oven. Thomas proposed the idea to the brothers and suggested using a three-compartment aluminum tray. One compartment would be for frozen turkey slices and the other two compartments for side dishes. Eventually, the company decided to include chicken and beef entrées, as well as other side dishes. In 1953, the Swanson brothers branded these frozen meals as TV dinners. With 20 percent of American households holding televisions during the 1950s, this posed as an intelligent marketing scheme.
The frozen food industry began to dramatically change surrounding the time of World War II. As men were required on the battlefield, women became more needed in the workforce. This limited the amount of time women could spend on preparing meals for their children, as they were still required to fulfill their household duties. Post-war, women became more aware of the time they could save with the help of TV dinners. By 1956, the Swanson brothers were selling 13 million TV dinners annually.
During World War II Jerpe was one of the largest suppliers of poultry and eggs to the military. After the war ended, Jerpe was renamed C.A. Swanson & Sons. After Carl Swanson's death in 1949, his sons Gilbert C. and W. Clarke took over the company. The brothers introduced a frozen chicken pot pie a year later.
In 1952, Swanson & Sons introduced their TV brand TV dinner, selling 5,000 units its first year. A year later the company had sold over 10,000,000 TV dinners. A year later, the company dropped its successful butter and margarine business to concentrate on a poultry-based line of canned and frozen products. In April 1955, Swanson's 4,000 employees and 20 plants were acquired by the Campbell Soup Company.
For the majority of its run, Swanson sponsored the game show, The Name's the Same, with Robert Q. Lewis, alternating sponsorship with, first Bendix Home Appliance division of Avco; and then Johnson's Wax. In a few 1980s and 1990s commercials for the TV dinner, the announcer was Mason Adams.
When the TV dinner products were launched in the 1950s, they were primarily competing with home-cooked food, and were developed with this relatively low price point in mind. By the 1970s, however, the increasing number of two-income families and single working parents meant that the primary competition came from restaurant food, either eaten at the restaurant or ordered to take out. This allowed the use of more expensive ingredients, but Swanson was slow to make the shift. In addition, American consumers were being increasingly exposed to more authentic international cuisines and fresher flavors, as well as becoming more nutritionally conscious. Swanson was also slow to recognize the importance of the microwave oven in the heat-and-eat food market, and retained foil trays that could not be used in a microwave long after their rivals had adopted paper or plastic trays. Swanson introduced their "Le Menu" line of meals to address all of these concerns, with more sophisticated menus served on undivided plastic microwavable plates with lids. However, these were introduced into a much more competitive market and had trouble competing with more established rivals. By the 1980s, the Swanson's brand trailed other frozen dinner brands such as Stouffer's and their Lean Cuisine products.
Campbell Soup spun off Swanson's TV dinner business with several other brands, including the Vlasic brand of pickles, on March 30, 1998, to a new company called Vlasic Foods International, whose name was changed to Pinnacle Foods in 2001. In the spin-off, Campbell Soup granted Vlasic International/Pinnacle Foods a ten-year license to use the Swanson name on its frozen meals and pot pies. That agreement expired in mid-2009 just before Pinnacle purchased Birds Eye Foods and Pinnacle discontinued the use of the Swanson name in favor of the Hungry-Man brand for its frozen dinners (the Swanson frozen breakfast line had been rebranded Aunt Jemima several years before).
A branch of the Omaha Public Library is named for W. Clarke Swanson.