The Origin of The Picnic
Thinking of the earliest picnics will evoke all kinds of wonderful imagery in your mind. But how far back can these thoughts lead and what exactly were the origins of the humble picnic?
Personally, I like to imagine a couple at the start of the last century. The gentleman in his finest tailored suit with his beau in her most splendid dress with matching bonnet and lace gloves. They are in the countryside with their picnic hamper eating and drinking to their hearts content upon a plaid picnic blanket.
Going back further it’s exciting to conjure up ideas of medieval feasts that were taken outside and enjoyed by dozens and dozens. Maybe there was a hunt and the catch of the day was used to swell bellies by night or maybe there were jousting tournaments where families joined to cheer their knight before coming together to eat as one.
What we know for certain however is that the word picnic originated in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and more than likely in France. The words pique and nique would over time become the modern equivalent. Meaning to pick at something small and unimportant it primarily described people coming together to eat in restaurants who would also bring their own drinks. They were literally the first BYOB (bring your own beer) restaurants.
But accounts of similar practices date back even further. Accounts are made of English in the 14th century, French around the same time and Greek gatherings going all the way back to the 5th century. They all have similar attributes however – a group of people would join together and each provide a contribution of food which would be communally enjoyed by all. In the most part this would be an indoor activity. The picnics origin, as we know it, would emerge when these feasts were taken outside and stayed there.
The picnic seems to have started in this guise as a pastime of nobles. Indeed, the original meaning of the picnic hamper, or hanapier in French, was goblet carrier. Over time though, like many things, the practice swept through all classes with each bringing their own unique twists to the ever increasingly popular activity. Whilst the nobles used the finest picnic cutlery made from china, the less well-to-do would settle for finger food and some hearty ale.
In the widely renowned Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a true authority of everything needed to run a Victorian kitchen, we get to glimpse at what constituted a quintessential picnic:
Things not to be forgotten at a Picnic.
“A stick of horseradish, a bottle of mint-sauce well corked, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of vinegar, made mustard, pepper, salt, good oil, and pounded sugar. If it can be managed, take a little ice. It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine-glasses, knives, forks, and spoons, must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers, 3 or 4 teapots, some lump sugar, and milk, if this last-named article cannot be obtained in the neighborhood. Take 3 corkscrews.”
The pomp and ceremony behind this is undeniably British to the core and to me reflects the absolute golden age of the picnic. You had wine, tea, spirits, proper cutlery and crockery. You had picnic condiments that were seen as a must that, more than likely would not be given a second thought in today’s spreads. Every single item in that picnic basket had a reason, no matter how trivial, to be there.
I will leave you with dispelling one story that has seemed to attach itself to the picnic folklore. Time and again you will hear people state, quite matter of factly, that the origins of the word picnic come from the times of slavery and lynchings. Now, if you do find some historical pictures of lynchings you can see in the background families with picnic baskets. And if you were really trying to stretch this story you could see how some people thought the word picnic sounded similar to picking negroes for a lynching but I’m afraid it’s just not true. The true meaning and origin of the word can be found above and this story has been proven to be a modern day urban legend. Originating from an email in 1989, the email was believed to have come from the Smithsonian but was later traced to a public relations officer in the Field Museum, Chicago. Case closed!