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What is a TV Tray?

A TV tray is a portable, foldable table, often used for enjoying meals or snacks while watching television. It's a convenient household item that brings the comfort of the dining room to your living room. Its versatility extends beyond TV dinners, serving as a makeshift workspace or craft station. How might a TV tray simplify your living space? Continue reading to find out.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

When television became popular during the early 1950s, many families changed their traditional dining and recreational habits. Instead of eating their meals at a communal dining table, it was not unusual for an entire family to eat in front of the television set. This new TV-centric lifestyle inspired several manufacturers to market a type of folding tray known as a TV tray. Users could unfold the hollow aluminum legs and attach a tray to hold their plates while they watched their favorite television programs in the living room or den.

There is a bit of a "chicken or the egg" controversy surrounding the first introduction of the TV tray, however. Some television historians say the first TV trays were available at least a year before the advent of the frozen TV dinner. The original TV tray was not necessarily marketed as a dinner tray, but more of a catch-all for plates, books, and craft projects a user might need while watching television. When not in service, a TV tray could be folded quickly and stored in an unobtrusive corner of the room.

The 1950s changed families' eating habits as the television became more popular.
The 1950s changed families' eating habits as the television became more popular.

Some sources suggest the TV tray was inspired by the use of portable trays in popular drive-in diners. Wait staff known as car hops would employ special trays which attached to the customer's car window or door frame. Indeed, the first TV trays did feature curved handles similar to those used in drive-in trays. These handles would sit on top of the folding aluminum legs, however.

TV trays are commonly used to eat frozen TV dinners.
TV trays are commonly used to eat frozen TV dinners.

Others believe the introduction of the first frozen TV dinners by Swanson's preceded the development of the TV tray. Under this theory, furniture manufacturers were inspired to create the trays after the successful launch of TV dinners. TV trays provided users with a supportive flat surface ideal for consuming their meals in the living room. Keeping the trays clean was relatively easy, and the trays protected the living room floor from stray crumbs and spilled beverages. A TV tray was also ideal for holding bagged snacks, television viewing guides and remote controls.

The first TV trays were generally made from lightweight metals such as aluminum, and often featured artwork from popular television shows or decorative patterns which matched the decor of the room. Many people today have fond memories of using TV trays as children during the 1950s and 1960s. A TV tray featuring a favorite cartoon character or television Western hero was often a prized possession.

Television trays are still being produced today, although many manufacturers now use materials such as wood or plastic instead of metal. A metal TV tray had a tendency to rust or decay over time, which is why very few original models can be found outside of antique or collectibles stores. Modern TV trays can also serve as breakfast trays for meals in bed or as temporary trays to hold craft projects and materials.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon140217

Remotes were available for TV's in the 60's. They were a small control with two buttons on the top which controlled the on/off - volume; and the channel. This was done with a clicker internally in the control set a different frequencies.One for the on/off - volume and one for the channel.

Jingling keys on a ring or even a dog shaking its metal tags could turn the set on or off or change the channel. Many times I would come home from school to find the dog curled up on the couch and the TV on. --Steve

anon25834

I hardly think remotes were available in the 50's and 60's! I have fond memories of those metal trays though. Now I have beautifully crafted wooden ones which I still use occasionally.

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    • The 1950s changed families' eating habits as the television became more popular.
      By: dja65
      The 1950s changed families' eating habits as the television became more popular.
    • TV trays are commonly used to eat frozen TV dinners.
      By: Michael Gray
      TV trays are commonly used to eat frozen TV dinners.