top of page
  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

The Origins of the American Picnic



“One of the pleasantest forms of entertainment is a well-arranged picnic (if only a fine day be selected), while nothing is calculated to give greater dissatisfaction than a badly managed one. To have chosen the wrong people (even one or two, who are likely not to make themselves agreeable), to have given people wrong seats in the various vehicles, or to have too many ladies in the party, are all often fatal errors.”

- Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (1888)



It is summer now. The weather is sunny and warm, and we all want to get outside and have a fun time. One of the more common pastimes here in the United States is packing up some food and drink and going on a picnic. Have you ever asked yourself where this custom came from and when did people here in the United States begin doing this? Join us for today’s blog post as we look and the history of the picnic and find out just when they became popular in the United States.


Origins of the Picnic

Let us begin this by defining just what we mean when we are talking about a picnic. We are not talking about general “al fresco” (outside) dining. Here in North America, we have packed food for traveling and eaten it outside for as long as there have been people. Since the first farms were set up shortly after the arrival of European colonists, we have packed lunches for farm workers to eat in the field. However, these are not part of our consideration.


Today, a picnic is a meal taken outdoors (al fresco) as part of an excursion, especially in scenic surroundings, such as a park, lakeside, or other place affording an interesting view, or else in conjunction with a public event such as preceding an open-air theater performance, usually in summer or spring. It is different from other meals because it requires free time to leave home. As we will see, the definition of a picnic did not begin this way but has morphed into this definition.


The picnic (or pique-nique) comes from France. According to some dictionaries, the French word pique-nique is based on the verb piquer, which means 'pick', 'peck', or 'nab', and the rhyming addition nique, which means 'thing of little importance', 'bagatelle', 'trifle'. The word pique-nique first appeared in a bawdy 17th-century French poem that featured a gluttonous character called Pique-Nique. The French nobility first developed the pique-nique in the 17th century, although, it was not what we would recognize. These were indoor dinner parties in which each guest was expected to bring a plate of food, wine, or contribute towards the cost. By 1694 the word appeared in Gilles Ménage's Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue francaise, with the meaning of a shared meal, with each guest paying for himself, but with no reference to eating al fresco. Since the French are very particular about their language, we also know that the Académie Française accepted the word “piquenique” as an official French word in 1740. The two most important aspects of the picnic were that it was casual, and often impromptu. The dishes were usually not fancy, thus perhaps considered, in a sense, to be of little or no value.


Much like other features of salon life, they were associated with conversation and wit – and, as such, were seen as intellectual refinement. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was typical in this regard. While rewriting the first act of Les Muses galantes in Paris, he would often dine with the Abbé de Condillac ‘tête à tête en pique-nique.’ At larger gatherings, there was also music or a dance – with the result that ‘picnic’ could be synonymous with a ball or party. In 1763, for instance, Lady Mary Coke told her sister that she had been at a type of ‘Subscription Ball’, known in Hanover as a ‘Picquenic’; and, in 1777, the novelist Cornelia Knight wrote in her diary that, during a stop-over in Toulouse, she ‘was entertained at a “pique-nique” dinner and dance’.


The French Revolution changed the picnic from an exclusively French custom. Fearing for their lives, many French aristocrats fled to London and, although impoverished, tried to keep on with their traditions. It did not take long for wealthy English Francophiles to catch on and, in 1801, a group of two hundred of them founded the “Pic Nic Society. The Pic-Nic Society was a sort of combination amateur theatre company and potluck supper club. To gain entry to the indoor party in rooms at Marylebone, London, you needed to bring a dish to add to the feast and six bottles of wine. The evening featured amateur dramatics, gambling, food, and drunkenness.

James Gilray's Cartoon of the Pic-Nic Society
James Gilray's Cartoon of the Pic-Nic Society

Even though the Prince of Wales was said to be among the two hundred Pic-Nic Society members, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an Irish-born politician, and owner of London’s Drury Lane theater, called it a threat to morality. The ruckus caught the attention of satirist James Gillray, who drew a cartoon featuring an overweight looking Sheridan confronting onstage a bare-breasted Lady Buckinghamshire, Colonel Greville dressed as a lowly courtier and Lord Mount Edgecumbe trying to eat some of the picnic dishes tumbling off a table. In 1802 The Times of London went as far as to describe the drawing of lots, by future pic-nic guests, which were then matched with a particular dish on a list created by the host(ess). The guest was required to make the dish and “either take it with him in his carriage, or send by a servant.”


At about the same time as Sheridan was working himself into a hissy fit in London, picnics were taken up by the emergent middle classes and moved outdoors. What caused this change is unclear; but the most likely explanation is that the socially aspirational simply applied a fashionable French word to a pre-existing practice, without being aware of its connotations. One of the results of this was that picnicking ceased to be associated with music and dancing and became a simple meal to which people were invited by a host. Another was that it became both more ‘genteel’ and – thanks to the idealization of the countryside – more innocent.


In 1808, Dorothy Wordsworth picnicked with eighteen others on Grasmere Island and, although puzzled by the origins of the word, told her friend Catherine Clarkson that ‘Windermere gentlemen have a picnic every day’. In Jane Austen’s work, Emma (1816), we are supplied with a vivid portrait of a rustic picnic on Box Hill, albeit one marred by stilted conversation and a painfully awkward quiz.


These early 19th century picnics were a way for the privileged classes to commune with nature, all the while consuming a feast assembled to minimize inconvenience and to enhance the outdoor experience. A beautiful site was selected some distance away. Each guest might have supplied a dish to share, or the host supplied all the food. Entertainments were provided. The idyllic interlude was a pleasurable respite from day-to-day life. Except for the servants, a Regency picnic required a great deal of work.


Servants had to prepare, pack, and transport the food, the furniture, the plates, serving dishes, cutlery, and linens. The whole lot would be loaded on wagons, but the wagons often could not reach the exact site of the picnic, so that the food, furniture, etc. would all have to be carried the rest of the way by servants, who would then have to set up everything, serve the food, and attend to the guests as required. When the picnic was over, the servants had to clean up, repack everything, and carry it back.


The Picnic Comes to America

In the decades which followed, the outdoor picnic found its way to the United States. In the 1830s, city-dwelling Americans started to copy Europeans, throwing down their picnic rugs in parks to embrace the countryside vibe. The proliferation of picnic paintings and notices in the 1830s signals the picnic’s adoption in America.

Thomas Cole's "The Picnic" (1846)
Thomas Cole's "The Picnic" (1846)

As was only to be expected, it remained a genteel pursuit of the urban middle classes; but unlike in England, its bucolic setting was associated with a flight from civilization. Early picnickers preferred grand views and picturesque settings, including new urban parks that offered a kind of pseudo-countryside for people eager to recreate a pastoral scene. They were even prescribed as an aid to achieving good health—what could be more wholesome than an afternoon outdoors?


But picnics were not always entirely innocent. According to Mary Ellen W. Hern, in her paper entitled “Picknicking in the Northeastern United States, 1840-1900”:


A striking aspect of the American Victorian picnic ritual was its sensuousness. From over-the-top feasts to “mild sexual license,” Americans saw picnics as a way to let loose and indulge. They even encouraged flirtation, sexual games, and opportunities to indulge in a bit of hanky-panky along with all that food.


As the Victorian Era continued, with better transportation options and more leisure time, picnics became a pastime of the middle class as well as the elite. With that, their popularity skyrocketed.


Even though picnics were not a thing in early America (1790-1829), what unites all picnics throughout the years is the element of delight—and the sense that no matter what you eat, serve, or do, you can never go wrong. Even if you have forgotten the corkscrew or the salad dressing, or it starts to rain, as Mrs. Beeton said in the 1880s, this only serves “rather to increase the fun than diminish it.


We hope you enjoyed today's post on Picnics - their history and when they became popular in the United States. We hope this article will encourage you to learn more about this influential leader of early America. Please join us again next time when we will take up another great American summer tradition – Barbecue, its origins and history in the United States.


Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Beeton, I. (1888). The Book of Household Management. London: Ward, Lock and Co.


Gurney, J. (1982). The National Trust Book of Picnics. London: David & Charles.


Hern, M. E. (1989, Summer-Autumn). Picnicking in the Northeastern United States, 1840-1900. Winterthur Portfolio, 24(2-3), 139-152.


Lee, A. (2019, July 7). The History of the Picnic. History Today, 69(7).


Levy, W. (2014). The Picnic: a history. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.


McGowan, K. (2010, May 27). It is a Potluck and a Talent Show: A Brief History of the Picnic. Retrieved from Comestibles: https://blog.kathrynmcgowan.com/2010/05/27/its-a-potluck-and-a-talent-show-a-brief-history-of-the-picnic/


Turrell, C. (2023, May 05). Picnics Are Back. Retrieved from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/picnics-are-back-180982102/


Comments


bottom of page