Nourish Your Nostalgia With Vintage TV Trays

Take a trip back to grandma's house with us and get to know the vintage TV trays that she always had at the ready on a whole new level.

Published May 24, 2024
Metallic vintage TV tray

As a kid, I didn’t bat an eyelash at precariously balancing a Michelina’s frozen nugget and french fries meal in front of our latest Blockbuster rental. But as an adult, I’ve become a TV tray convert. Who needs those cheap wood trays when you can get a flashy vintage TV tray instead? While there aren’t many gadgets the 1950s-60s nailed, TV trays were absolutely one of them.

The Vintage TV Tray Phenomenon

Between the 1950s and 1970s, TV trays were an extremely common feature of your household. Tucked into some closet or corner of the room, these foldable trays were a staple for evening meals spent in front of the TV.

Though it’s hard to pinpoint when the first TV tray was introduced, it popped up around the same time as TV dinners in the early 1950s. These frozen, ready-made meals cut down on prep and cooking time so that the whole family could watch the same evening shows together.

And balancing a hot aluminum tray on your lap sounds like the opposite of a good time. Manufacturers in the 1950s were nothing, if not ingenious when it came to making money and solving a problem. Thus, TV trays were born.

Need to Know

Looking for vintage TV trays online? You might also find them listed as lap trays or serving trays. 

3 Different Vintage TV Tray Styles

If you think long and hard back to your grandparents’ house, you’ll probably remember them whipping out one of these three kinds of TV trays.

Vintage 1950's Cal Dak Toleware Metal TV Trays with Tray Stand
  • Folding floor trays: These trays were the earliest style. They were made to sit on the floor and be pulled up to your lap. They were tall and sturdy and resembled bar stools.
  • Folding lap trays: As TV trays evolved, they lost some of their height. These trays were made to fold out and sit on either side of your thighs against the couch cushions. This was the most popular and longest-lasting TV tray style.
  • Non-folding lap trays: Towards the 1990s, lap trays started becoming a thing. These were glorified pillows in that they were flat aluminum trays that you could balance on your lap.
Need to Know

Vintage TV trays were usually sold in sets, and it’s extremely hard to find a complete set that includes the storage stand that held them.

What Were Vintage TV Trays Made Out Of?

Vintage TV trays were simply constructed. Usually, they were made out of aluminum or another cheap metal, but you can find old wood, fiberglass, and plastic examples. The delicately painted metal ones certainly have the most charm.

Related: 9 Vintage Kitchen Items Much Better Than the Modern Versions

Popular Motifs Your Grandmother Probably Loved

Go hunting for a vintage TV tray in your local thrift store, and 90% of the time, you’ll find one embellished with a floral print of some kind. Florals cornered the market on TV tray motifs 60 years ago. But florals weren’t the only painted and printed motifs you can find.

MCM folding lap tray, metal tray, breakfast in bed, daisies, MarshAllan, 1969, midcentury, vintage tray

Other motifs include:

  • Cartoon characters
  • Film franchises
  • Disneyland
  • Geometric shapes
  • Abstract designs
  • Animals & Insects
  • Gingham
  • Video game characters

How Much Are Vintage TV Trays Worth?

Vintage TV trays might not make a big impression in person, but they’re worth a fair bit at auction. Typically sold in sets, metal folding TV trays from the 1950s-1970s can sell for upwards of $200+. For example, one four-piece floral set recently sold for $300 on eBay.

While condition plays a major part in how much vintage TV trays can sell for, the thing that can skyrocket a TV tray’s value is media merchandise. Vintage TV trays that were painted or printed with a character from a cartoon, comic book, movie, TV show, or theme park can go for well over $500 a pop.  For instance, a three-piece set of vintage Disneyland TV trays recently sold for $660 at auction.

4 Unique Ways to Use Vintage TV Trays

If you’ve been gifted your grandma’s banged-up TV tray from the 1970s, you probably won’t get much for it on the resell market. Don’t banish it to the basement just yet. Instead, make the best use of it with one of these ingenious ideas.

  • Give your dog or cat’s food bowl some style. Prop your pet’s food bowls on top of the vintage TV tray. The best part is it’s made to handle errant food particles and is easy to clean because of it.
  • Use it as a lap desk. There’s no reason you can’t plop your laptop or tablet on a vintage TV tray instead of microwave meals.
  • Turn it into a dirty shoe holder. Set your vintage TV tray in the foyer and leave your wet and muddy boots and shoes on top to keep your floors nice and clean.
  • Make it your kid’s art station. Vintage TV trays are sturdy and perfect for an arts and crafts station for young kids. From finger painting to using glitter, these trays will keep your tables free and clear.

Vintage TV Trays Are a Treat

If you haven’t already, we highly encourage you to break out a colorful vintage TV tray before digging into your favorite microwave meal or takeaway and binging a new show. After all, sometimes the most mundane things from our past bring us the greatest amount of joy.

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Nourish Your Nostalgia With Vintage TV Trays