At HomeQuestionsAnswered, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
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.
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.
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.