Thursday, July 11, 2019

When Picnics were for the Privileged Class

by Maria Grace

The concept of a picnic has been existence for a very long time. (Of course, one could argue that eating outdoors was the very first way to eat, but let’s not go back quite that far.) Food historians suggest that the modern concept of the picnic evolved from traditional moveable outdoor feasts. The first English picnics were medieval hunting feasts staged before the chase (not after, I suppose, in case the hunt wasn’t particularly successful, but I digress).

The word picnic (which the OED says did not occur in print in English until 1748, in a letter by Lord Chesterfield) probably originated with the French pique nique found in a 1649 satirical French poem in which Frères Pique-nicques is known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” (Kennedy, 2013) The word later was used to mean to ‘pick a place’, typically an isolated spot, where a group could enjoy a pleasant meal together, free from distractions and demands of daily life.

The English word ‘picnic’ became associated with card-playing, drinking and conversation. By 1802, British Francophiles formed a Pic-Nic society in London devoted to eating, drinking and performing amateur theatricals. Dinners for this society were provided by the members who drew lots to determine who would be bringing which dish—we wouldn’t want thirty-seven blancmanges to show up for the same picnic, would we?

The idea of a picnic also referred to a dinner where all those present contributed foods and was eaten indoors—rather like the modern pot luck meal. The meaning gradually changed to include the concept of eating out-of-doors and by 1860 (solidly in the Victorian era), the change in meaning—a meal eaten outdoors—was complete.

Picnics and the Privileged Class

In the 1800s, British authors began to describe picnics: the adventures of characters who staged their meals in pastoral locations, rather like theater sets. Romantic aesthetics were often important in crafting the ideal picnic setting. In “Emma,” Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton plans a “sort of Gipsy party.” She had in mind walking about the gardens, gathering strawberries, sitting under trees and the like, in addition to enjoying a meal out-of-doors. Her stated intention was to keep things as natural and simple as possible. (Kennedy, 2013)

However unpretentious picnics might appear, this activity was actually far from being simple. Hubbell (2006) tells us:
“Picnicking, which first evolved in early nineteenth century Britain, is an ideological act, freighted with values for ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, food and taste, aesthetics and ethics, community and solitude. To picnic is to consume not only particular food, but also a specific environment chosen according to an aesthetic standard, and a particular form of sharing food according to certain standards of behavior.

It means creating a moveable feast and overcoming difficulties and inconveniences, not only for preparation and transportation, but also for consumption and cleanup. Yet picnicking is the pleasurable pursuit of a leisured people, so the difficulty of moving the feast has some reward. The reward is primarily ideological: it enables the participant to share a form of eating that creates relationships between small groups of people, natural landmarks, and cultural ideals. These relationships form a consciousness of national identity. Picnicking, especially for early nineteenth-century picnickers, was thus a way of performing Britishness.”
So picnicking was far more than an impromptu meal outdoors. Even when each person attending brought food, it meant a great deal of work for everyone, especially the servants. Since picnicking was, during Jane Austen’s day, mostly the province of the privileged, servants were definitely involved.

Food and furnishing, dining ware and linens, not to mention the accouterments for any intended amusements—games, fishing, reading and the like—all had to be packed up and transported to the picnic site. Keep in mind, too, that the wagons used for transport might not actually be able to make it all the way to the chosen site and the final distance might require everything to be hand carried there. Afterwards, of course, it would all have to be packed up to be taken home, and possibly cleaned or laundered before being put away.

It was not until the Victorian Era with the rise of the middle class and train transportation that picnics became more widely enjoyed.

Sample Menu

With out the benefit of modern refrigeration or convenient packaged food, what might have been eaten at a picnic? This suggested menu comes from Mrs. Beeton’s 1860 book, which is decidedly Victorian, but the foods are indicative of what might have been served in Austen’s era as well.


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, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers.

Stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked; 3 or 4 dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blancmanges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs. of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), 4 quartern loaves of household broad, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits, 1/2 lb, of tea. Coffee is not suitable for a picnic, being difficult to make. 
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 neighbourhood. Take 3 corkscrews.

3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger-beer, soda-water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne à discrétion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy. Water can usually be obtained so it is useless to take it.
So, the next time you pack a few sandwiches and some cold cans of soda, reflect back on what the picnic used to be, and how Jane Austen would so be judging you now!


Beeton, Isabella. Beeton's Book of Household Management. London: S. O. Beeton Publishing, 1861.

Cameron, Collette. “Pleasures and Proprieties of a Country Picnic. Collette Cameron. / May 31, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2019.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gaston, Diane. Regency Picnic or a Labor Day? The Risky Regencies. September 5, 2011. Accessed June 3, 2019.

Hubbell, Andrew. How Wordsworth invented picnicking and saved British Culture. Romanticism, Volume 12, Number 1, 2006, pp. 44-51 (Article) Published by Edinburgh University Press DOI: For additional information about this article Access provided at 11 Jun 2019

Kennedy, Pagan. "Who Made That Picnic." New York Times, August 23, 2013. Accessed June 3, 2019.

Oliver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline: Food-Picnics.” The Food Timeline. 2004. Accessed Jun 3, 2019,

Sanford, Vic.Emma: Picnicking on Box Hill Jane Austen’s World. March 21, 2008. Accessed June 3, 2019.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


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