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Picnics

The term ‘picnic’ first appeared in the 18th century and referred to a meal eaten indoors or outdoors to which everyone would contribute, either financially or by bringing a dish. From the 19th century, the upper classes abandoned the picnic in favour of garden parties, while middle-class city dwellers embraced this activity which offered a change of scene and the chance to get back to nature, far from the grey urban landscape.
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© Getty Images / Stockbyte - A family picnic

A brief history of the picnic

Eating outdoors is a practice as old as humanity itself. However, ‘picnicking’ only emerged in the 18th century. The term then referred to a shared meal, indoors or outdoors, to which everyone contributed either financially, by bringing their own food or some for the group.

In the pre-industrial period, for some people eating outdoors was an everyday necessity connected with their working conditions, while for others it was a pleasure afforded by their privileged social status.

In the 19th century, the development of the railways made the countryside more accessible and there was a public health trend which advocated that the outdoors was a place to relax. The countryside became a popular destination for city dwellers wishing to recharge their batteries and leisurely outdoor meals became increasingly common. While workers ate a quick meal in the drab urban environment, the bourgeoisie would escape to enjoy their ‘luncheon on the grass.’ However, the aristocracy looked unfavourably on this social activity, seen as too casual and a breach of etiquette. Indeed, these meals, where costs were shared among the participants, opened the door to all sorts of derogatory remarks. Aristocrats favoured luncheons, garden parties and ‘countryside parties’ and left the picnic to the classes they considered as inferior.

The bicycle and then the car became increasingly accessible. The number of travel guides multiplied, offering tours of natural sites and major historic monuments. The picnic established itself as a ‘must-do’ part of these tours, whether alone or with a group. Stopping to eat and to soak up the scenery during an excursion or journey became an integral part of the experience. As this new outdoor activity became increasingly popular, specific utensils appeared on the market: Picnic baskets and hampers containing plates and cutlery, long considered the preserve of the wealthy classes for their journeys and countryside parties, were now accessible to more modest households. Thermos, for example, launched its vacuum flask in 1904, making it possible for people to have a drink ‘just like at home’, yet while on the move.