Remember those gaudily decorated, cheap metal fold-out trays? With the advent of a television in every home in the 1950’s, families soon needed a way to hold food and beverage items while watching one of the three available channels. The TV tray table quickly became a must-have. Their design and ubiquity make them an undeniable pop culture icon.
So what came first the TV tray table or the TV dinner? National advertising for TV tray tables first appeared in 1952. Two years later, C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the frozen TV dinner, marketing it as an easy-to-prepare, fun-to-eat meal, with a disposable tray that reduced clean-up time. The TV dinner tapped into excitement over television and the tray table was there to literally lend support. By 1960, nearly 90% of American homes had a television and a similar percentage had a TV tray table set.
My family had one. There is a pretty good chance you had a set too. They were loyal little things. We know Walter Frederick Morrison invented the Frisbee, Gregory Goodwin Pincus devised the oral contraceptive pill, Bette Nesmith Graham came up with Liquid Paper, Richard T. James brought us the Slinky, and William Greatbatch tinkered until he had the pacemaker. Sadly, the inventor of the TV tray table has never been credited.
The original models consisted of a metal tray with grips mounted underneath and a set of tubular metal legs with rubberized tips. The grips secured the legs, which could be opened up to support the tray, or collapsed for storage. When not in use the four trays were housed in a rack out of the way but always within reach.
TV tray tables are retro because for a time it seemed that they had entirely disappeared. That is, unless you happened across them in an aging family member’s home or at a garage sale where they stood like sad sentinels next to dusty wooden golf clubs and rusty gym weights. The fact is they never went away.
I am here to tell you that they evolved. In fact, when I set out to write this I contemplated calling it, “The Return of the TV Tray Table”, but that is inaccurate. They can be found in homes everywhere albeit in slightly modified, more progressive forms. These helpful friends are examples of furniture Darwinism in the home.
Early tray patterns included nature scenes, food illustrations, and later even television characters. The look of the trays emulated aesthetic trends of the day. See, they were always adapting. The original tray tables are still made today, some in retro styles mimicking the old ones. Others now come in sleek metal and wood modernist constructions.
The trays are marketed not only as platforms for food but as side tables, desks, and beverage trays. The recent retro fascination with repurposing and reusing items from yesteryear extends to the TV tray. They are popular particularly in small living spaces given they can be tucked away. In this era of Netflix binge TV watching and continuous Internet connection, more and more meals are being consumed in front of a screen. This may be sad for society but guarantees a long life for the TV tray table in all its incarnations.