Aluminum and Leftover Turkey: Journey to the Smithsonian

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Ah, Thanksgiving. A time for Americans to recognize their blessings, spend time with loved ones, and cradle plates filled with sweet potatoes and turkey. The U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday: giving thanks, snacking on mashed potatoes, and watching parades and football games. For those already missing the holiday, leftover turkey sandwiches serve as a reminder.

An abundance of leftover Thanksgiving turkey takes the blame for the advent of TV dinners. According to Time, “In 1953, someone at Swanson severely overestimated the amount of turkey Americans would consume that Thanksgiving. With 260 tons of frozen birds to get rid of, a company salesman named Gerry Thomas ordered 5,000 aluminum trays, recruited an assembly line of women armed with spatulas and ice-cream scoops and began creating mini-feasts of turkey, corn-bread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes — creating the first-ever TV dinner.”

Although plastic and paper products have replaced aluminum trays, the frozen meals spent several years in this divided, metal-sealed container. Until 1986, anyone partaking in pre-packaged delicacies could place the aluminum tray in an oven without any extra dishes, simplifying both the cooking and the cleaning. In 1953, the dinners sold for 98 cents per plate; today, two or three dollars is the norm. If companies still used aluminum, though, we imagine the dinners would cost even more. Aluminum prices might have fallen to a three-year low earlier this week and closed at $1,752.75 per ton on Wednesday, but one USGS chart shows the drastic price difference since 1953.

Aluminum might not have a place on your TV tray these days, but the original metal trays aren’t throwing a pity party. When Campbell Soup Company replaced the aluminum trays with microwave-safe containers in 1986, the Smithsonian Institute inducted the original aluminum Swanson Dinner tray into its historic collection. And we’re sure aluminum is thankful for this accomplishment. From the team at MetalMiner, we hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving — and that you find an innovative way to put that leftover turkey to good use!

–Amy Edwards

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