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Victorian Picnics Rekindled Rural Romance

Victorian Picnics were not the first to spread blankets in nature. In the pre-industrial age many people worked and ate meals outside. But the concept of dining al fresco transformed in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution and massive urbanization. From the bush to rural graveyards to developed picnic groves, Victorian picnics reached new heights of popularity.

According to Walter Levy in his book The Picnic, A History:

“In 1694 the French named an indoor meal a pique-nique, but they did not link it with dining alfresco…The English were aware of the custom of a pique-nique dinner but did not publicly engage in them until 1802, by which time they Anglicized the spelling as picnic. Four years later, the picnic dinner turned topsy-turvy, from indoors to outdoors…Even the reluctant French concurred.” (p. 6)

By the mid-19th century, the only picnic was an outdoor affair. Modern picnics were simple and idyllic. They were also (sometimes) stress free.

Following are a  few delectable morsels about Victorian Picnics.

Picnics Lightened The Load For Weary Workers

The world experienced a sea change with the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, half of England’s population lived in the city. With urbanization came the desire to escape the city, if only for a day or an afternoon.

By the late 1800s, the standard of living for the average working person expanded. Vacation time also became a reality.

According to the Library of Congress in America at Work: America at Leisure, 1894 to 1915 was the time when many workers started to gain leisure time. Some employers decreased working hours and instituted a half-day holiday on Saturdays.

“Vacations began to be regularly offered to workers, although they were usually unpaid ones. The monotony of specialized industrial work and the crowding of urban expansion also created a desire in the worker to have leisure time away from his or her job and away from the bustle of the city.”

Many families could not afford to take long vacations far from home. But they could on occasion lose a day’s work for a short jaunt to the country or the seashore. With improvements in transportation the popularity of picnics in the later 19th and early 20th century blossomed. Seaside Resorts were opening in Europe and America. Amusement parks also opened from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Luna Park in Los Angeles, the Hotel Del Coronado Tent City in  San Diego and Catalina Island. Picnics were often a big part of these one-day getaways.

Australians Enjoyed Bush Walking Picnics

The popularity of picnics in the 20th century ran parallel with the rise of access to railways, bikes and later, automobiles. Company picnic days and bush walking picnics like those organized by Wunderlich Limited from were big deals.

According to curator Anni Turnbull at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney:

“Devices to aid the picnicker, often adaptations of household items like baskets, cups and plates were offered for sale in the ‘Store Catalogues’ of the late 1800s and early 1900s, like those of Anthony Hordens and later David Jones.”

The following photograph is one of the Museum’s earliest images of a picnic. The woman second from left is holding a cigarette. Cricket stumps and bat are visible on one side. Inscribed on a billy (cooking pot for use when camping) in the foreground is the text Freshwater 1895 AP. To the right is an early picnic hamper similar to one in the Museum’s collection.

New Zealand Celebrated Community Holidays On Picnic Blankets

Family and community picnics were a popular pastime in colonial New Zealand as well. Rural picnics usually occurred outside of peak work seasons, but when the weather was still good. According to The Encyclopedia of New Zealand:

“Station owners on treeless Canterbury properties rode miles to picnic in the bush. For urban dwellers a picnic at the park or beach or in the countryside provided a break from town life. Most colonial New Zealand wage workers only had Sundays off. Sunday picnickers risked condemnation from churchgoers for breaking the Sabbath, but many ignored such criticisms.”

 In the 1870s railways and ferries began to run regular Sunday picnic excursions from towns to rural beauty spots. Devout churchgoers condemned Sunday excursionists as the Devil’s travelers.

From the 1890s a growing number of workers received a weekly half-holiday. Usually on Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday, half-holidays allowed picnicking without the dreaded fear of sabbath-breaking.

The ‘picnic season’, from November (spring) through to May (autumn), included several public and bank holidays. Among them were the Prince of Wales’s birthday, Christmas and New Years Day.

By 1899, Labor Day was another official public holiday in October when unions held parades and picnics.

Picnics Were Simple Affairs, Unless You Followed The Rules

Grabbing a quick bucket of chicken was not possible for Victorian Picnics. Yes, they could still keep it simple. But the household trendsetters of the day made things infinitely more complicated for the hostess.

Isabella Beeton (March 1836 – February 1865) wrote her massive Book of Household Management at 21. She was a fashionable and modern young woman with unconventional opinions. But her advice on creating the perfect picnic in Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-day Cookery were not for the faint of heart. Her bill of fare for 40 persons recommended

“…a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, two pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, “. Th1 piece of collard calf’s head…”

And there were buckets of salads, cucumbers, jellies, creams, cheeses, cakes and so much more. Oh, and don’t forget the stick of horseradish.

In her book, Queen of the Household (1900) Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth mused on the selection of an appropriate picnic locale.

“There should be a stream or spring of pure water, materials for a fire, shade intermingled with sunshine, and a reasonable freedom from tormenting insect life. Charming as is the prospect of picnicking in some grand dell, some lofty peak, or in some famous cave or legendary ruin…One does not feel too comfortable when banqueting in localities where Dame Nature has had her queer moods…” (p. 566)

The ideal picnic fare should be easy to handle and “bear traveling without looking dejected and sullen.” On the simple side, she was a huge fan of the sandwich, including meat spreads made to sweet fillings of butter, marmalades, and preserves.

Mrs. Ellsworth was adamant that a proper hostess take care of her guests’ every need and desire.  This included providing multiple games and other forms of entertainment, blankets, seating and more.

So much for a carefree day in the park.

Pre-Made Luxury Victorian Picnics Made Life Easy

Making Victorian picnics was not simple. But there were some fantastic options for those in the know with a budget. Today we can pick up those pre-packaged picnic baskets for events from the Boston pops to the Hollywood Bowl.

According to Fortnum and Mason’s archivist Dr Tanner, the London Season included many opportunities for glorious Victorian picnics. Among them were the Harrow and Eton cricket match, Henley Regatta, Cowes Regatta and the Epsom Derby.

The Derby was first run in 1780. By the mid 19th century, it had become the day out for all of London. People could buy a pie or tart from hawkers, peddlers, entertainers and gypsies. But for those who wanted to enjoy the Derby to the full (and could afford the price tag) a pre-made picnic basket from Fortnum was the ultimate luxury.

By the 1860s, the shop opened at 4am on Derby Day, with a machine in place to ensure that all picnic baskets were perfect for those addicted to conspicuous consumption. For twelve picnickers, Tanner says, Fortnum packed:

“Twelve bottles of champagne, six bottles of French white sine, six bottles of German white wine; two bottles of brandy and six bottles of seltzer. To soak up some of that liquid, there were 12 lobsters – one each for the attendees – alongside lobster salad; pigeon pies, a jellied boar’s head, a boiled ham, bread rolls, cheeses, butter wrapped in lettuce leaves to keep it fresh, and hot house peaches.”

Rural Cemeteries Welcomed Victorian Picnics

Prior to 1860, formal burial was primarily restricted to interment of the body on the grounds of a church or small family cemetery.

According to the Center For Research Libraries (CRL):

“As the 19th century progressed, towns grew to cities, and population increased proportionally. For reasons of public health and overcrowding, burial grounds began to be located outside of population centers, no longer on church ground.”

These cemeteries spawned the Rural Cemetery Movement, beginning with Mount Auburn, Boston (1831), Laurel Hill, Philadelphia (1836) and Greenwood, N.Y. (1838). They were designed with a romantic vision based on English landscape gardening.

“It was common, especially on Sundays, for full families to picnic in cemeteries “taking long walks in the peaceful setting, thinking about the past and the future, and keeping a little bit of history alive for themselves.”

Green-Wood featured 17 miles of carriage drives, gardens and wooded. The board welcomed the public. In Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1870), author James D. McCabe wrote that Greenwood Cemetery “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.” (p. 391)

“The sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar…”

By the end of the 19th century, the role of the cemetery as a place of escape from the city had been supplanted by the establishment of parks, and by the blurring of city and country as suburbia evolved.

It has been argued that the rural cemetery, serving as an oasis within the expanding urban and industrial landscape of the country, actually became the foundation of the American park movement.

Enthusiastic Politicians Learned That War Was Not A Picnic

July 21, 1861, it was going to be the first major battle of the American Civil War that had begun three months before. Washingtonians packed their picnic lunches and trekked to the countryside near Manassas, Virginia to watch Union and Confederate forces. In the North, it was called the First Battle of Bull Run. In the South it was called the Battle of First Manassas. To some it became known as the “picnic battle”

In the Picnic: A History, Levy writes:

“There are hazy stories about U.S. congressmen and Washington socialites anticipating a Union victory picnicking with fine china and crystal above the battlefield.”

He quotes Southerner Mary Chesnut’s diary entry for that day in which she “gloats over the Unionists’ false sense of victory. In her diary entry for July 27, 1861, she scoffs at U.S. Congressmen who were “making a picnic” of the war.

Levy writes that whether or not spectators showed up with sandwiches and opera glasses is a moot point. These onlookers expected a victory for the Union and a swift end to the war.

Instead, the battle was a bloody defeat for the Union. Allegedly picnickers scrambled to safety.

The war correspondent William Howard Russell reported the “he also picnicked on the third day of the battle when he left Washington D.C.” He had packed a lunch with” a flask of Bordeaux, a bottle of water and a paper of sandwiches and a flask of brandy.

“A year after Bull Run, Alexander Gardner staged a photograph of a picnic beside a bridge in Antietam, Maryland, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.” (Levy, p. 128)

Picnics Became Part Of A Tamed Landscape

Picnic Groves in or near urban areas were created by developers when  in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Chicago’s South Park (1871) was a great example of one such tamed landscape.  These lead to  the surge of  urban parks across America and Europe.

Some people could travel farther from the city on their vacations . In the United States, national parks were created  to preserve nature. Yellowstone Park was one of the first, where people camped or stayed at  hotels. Picnics were always on the itinerary.

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