As television became more commonplace in American homes in the 1950s, people didn’t want to miss their favorite shows, which often meant they wound up eating snacks or even meals in front of the television. It’s not easy to eat a plate of spaghetti in your La-Z-Boy while catching the latest episode of Leave It To Beaver, so someone out there had the clever idea of bringing the kitchen table to the living room in the form of TV trays.

These metal or wood trays were a modern marvel, allowing people to eat not only in front of the TV, but really anywhere in the house or outdoors on the patio. They became a staple in a lot of homes, especially if they hosted large gatherings where not everyone could fit at the dining room table.

These trays were meant for people to use while sitting in a full-sized chair, like this idealized “Man of the House” in this magazine ad from 1957…

But what about the kids who didn’t have their own chair in the living room and were relegated to sitting on the floor to watch TV? There were sort of miniature trays that had smaller legs suitable for sitting on the floor. And best of all, they were often decorated with kid-friendly designs like this (creepy) animal tray…

or their favorite cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse…

Of course in the kids’ marketing blitz that was the 1980s, TV trays were updated with everyone’s favorite cartoon, TV show, movie, and toy characters…

Branded TV trays were pretty common up until the last decade or so. And they’re not completely gone, they’re just not everywhere like they once were.

Most of the time what you’ll see now for kids are generic, plastic “Activity Trays” with pockets for craft supplies…

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at my friends’ house in town. Brothers Kevin and Brian and their sister Jennifer, each had their own TV tray that they would sometimes use in the living room to eat snacks or meals while watching TV. Kevin and Brian each had The Dukes of Hazzard trays, Jennifer had a Strawberry Shortcake tray.

When I would come over, Jennifer wouldn’t usually hang out with us and watch TV since we wanted to watch “boys’ shows” like Superfriends, Knight Rider, and the aforementioned Dukes of Hazzard. This meant I was stuck with the Strawberry Shortcake tray, but I honestly didn’t mind because I thought TV trays were the coolest thing ever.

I wanted a TV tray so badly when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn’t buy one for me because they didn’t want me mindlessly sitting in front of the TV to eat; they wanted me to sit at the table to eat. Of course years later, well after my ability to fit my thunder thighs under a kids’ TV tray, we wound up with a second TV in the kitchen right next to the table where we’d watch the local news every night at dinner.

Since my desire for a TV tray went unfulfilled, they’ve always been something I’ve wanted to collect as an adult, but the market for them is a real crapshoot. Admittedly, no one took good care of their TV tray when they were kids, because no one expected them to be cool collectors items one day. It wasn’t unusual for drinks to get spilled and never properly cleaned up, leaving a sticky puddle of decades-old Kool-Aid behind. Or for the tray to get dinged up and scratched up putting it away whenever you were done watching cartoons and eating your apple slices. Most TV trays today are rusted and dented and in generally terrible shape, so the ones that are in good shape will cost you an arm and a leg.

But then, just recently, I found this beautiful Batman tray from the 1989 film on Facebook Marketplace that was not only in great shape, but was a great price, too – less than $20! There was no way I was passing this up.

As you can see from the side-view, it’s a little bent out of shape, but it only really appears that way when you put the legs down. I’m not sure if one leg is riveted just a little too tightly or the other is a little too loose, but, quite honestly, it’s going to sit on a shelf in my office in the closed position either way, so I’m not too worried about the bend.

I’d love to collect more vintage TV trays as I feel like they’re kind of becoming one of those things that we just won’t see a resurgence of anytime soon. As screens become smaller and more portable, you don’t need to sit in front of the big, glowing box and enjoy a meal, you just need to prop your iPad or phone up on the kitchen table itself to be entertained while you eat. As I said before, finding them in good condition at a reasonable price is a rarity though, so I’ll have to keep checking those antique malls and FB Marketplace and hope for the best.

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