A Brief History of the TV Tray

published Nov 17, 2019
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When you think of the quintessential 1950s dinner setup, you might picture meatloaf served in a formal dining room, with a Stepford Wife in her apron doling out mashed potatoes as the family chats about their days. But supper was just as often eaten in front of “I Love Lucy” episodes in the living room. People weren’t propping drinks and takeout containers up on sofa arms like we do now, and that’s because of the TV tray, which was first advertised in commercials in 1952. Two years later, Swanson debuted its frozen dinners in 1954, and the at home, casual dining revolution was born.

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TV tray tables often came in a set of four—you’d take them off of their storage rack and unfold them to use them. No one knows for sure who invented them, but they captured the zeitgeist of a new generation. While nowadays TV trays are often the stuff of garage sales and flea markets, these compact tables cashed in on Americans’ growing excitement over television in the 1950s. According to the National Museum of American History, nearly 90 percent of American homes had a television by 1960, and everyone from cultural icons to ordinary families used TV tray tables. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower often ate their supper on matching tray tables in their Pennsylvania home with the news on, and some thirty years later, the Reagans famously ate their dinner in the White House on TV trays instead of in more formal dining rooms.

Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

When the TV tray became mainstream, many weren’t exactly thrilled over this migration from the dining room to the den. In a 1955 article entitled “What’s Wrong with Family Life? Maybe the TV Tray,” the living room tray was blamed for the clash between parents and their kids. “Eating today is largely off the snack bar, or the corner of the kitchen sink, or a TV tray, or maybe a sandwich on the run,” a member of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers told the St. Cloud Times. “At the dining table the family meets together, conversation comes naturally, and each member learns to accept the opinions of others without getting upset about it.” For some, this new TV centric culture threatened the fabric of family and societal dynamics.

Others believed the nation’s growing fascination with television heralded the end of civilized society. “Visiting one home recently we saw unmistakable evidence that the television set was the center of all family life,” one disapproving journalist shared with Oklahoma’s Broken Arrow Ledger in 1957. “The rug around it looked like a stomping ground and was covered with assorted mustard and catsup stains. The lady of the house had a full set of TV trays and an ample supply of TV dinners in the refrigerator.” The reporter went on to write that she hoped that the youngsters’ teachers could teach reading in school, because “they’ll sure never get it in that home.” 

Credit: Etsy

And yet many welcomed the casual vibes television and its accoutrements brought into homes. In 1957, The News Review dubbed the metal tables as “folding fret-savers” and “probably the greatest boon to be set beside the relaxing American.” The tables weren’t just great for eating in front of the TV but a blessing for when hosting dinner parties. Thanks to tray tables, a party-thrower could discreetly place an ashtray by a smoker’s chair, and guests didn’t have to balance plates on their knees as they chatted on the couch or put their glasses on the floor when they went for appetizers.

In my opinion, the best part about TV trays is they just might have started the whole home hack phenomenon. Housewives would send their tips to newspaper advice columns, sharing all the smart ways they would use their table trays outside of eating. The hacks ran the gamut, from stretching shapewear to sorting folded and ironed clothes. Some converted their TV trays into turkey platters for Thanksgiving, while one clever woman turned her model with wheels into a mobile cleaning caddy.

Credit: CB2

Eating in front of the TV was an exciting change of pace back in the 1950s, and we’ve always liked a good distraction. Households had lap tray sets for armchairs as early as the 1930s, which allowed people to kick back in their living rooms and listen to radio shows as they ate dinner together. With its moving pictures and (eventually) vibrant colors, television—and the TV tray table—only made this trend more compelling, convenient, and ultimately pervasive. And truthfully, dining on TV tray tables continued well into the ’80s and ’90s and still exists today. What’s changed? The motifs, materials, and colors of TV tray tables are certainly more modern on the whole. And these days, many of us are simply eating at the coffee table (hello, small spaces!) and binging Netflix instead of “I Love Lucy”. Seems we’ve been slowly migrating to the living room for dinner all along.