The Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus, 15th century.
An illustration of noblemen enjoying a picnic, from a French edition of
An illustration of noblemen enjoying a picnic, from a French edition of The Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons
Whether a shepherd, an explorer, a hunter or a fairgoer, people have been eating outside since the beginning of time.
"The dictionaries confirm the word 'picnic' first surfaced in the 18th century, so we were picnicking before we had the term," says research librarian and food historian Lynne Olver, who runs the Food Timeline website.
"The original definition of the word 'picnic' denoted something like a potluck," she says, "so you would have a bunch of people getting together, and each would be contributing to the feast."
One of the earliest accounts of picnicking, she says, comes from tales of Robin Hood. He and his Merry Men would informally dine on bread, cheese and ale under the trees, Olver says. But picnics, she notes on her site, also evolved from the tradition of elaborate movable feasts among the wealthy.
"Back in the day," she notes, "you had medieval hunting feasts, Elizabethan country parties."
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A family enjoys a picnic in the countryside in 1869. Food historian Lynne Olver says middle-class Victorians picnicked on a tablecloth or bedspread like we do today. "The wealthier you were, the higher you dined," she says.
A family enjoys a picnic in the countryside in 1869. Food historian Lynne Olver says middle-class Victorians picnicked on a tablecloth or bedspread like we do today. "The wealthier you were, the higher you dined," she says. Francis Hollyer/Getty Images
And in the Victorian era, picnics were very grand affairs indeed. In 1861, the definitive list of the Victorian picnic fare for England's upper class appeared in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. One could not eat outdoors without tables, linens, crystal, chairs, servants — and gourmet fare, of course. It's a far cry from our blankets and coolers, but the idea was ultimately the same.
Over time, picnic baskets have also evolved.
"Woven baskets have been used to port food from the very earliest times forward," Olver says. "The reason is they are light, they are sturdy, they are easily adapted for specific purposes. The largest ones seem to resemble trunks, and that might be where we get the picnic hamper from. Picnic basket kits as we know today — having placeholders for dishes and silverware and glasses and napkins — actually begin to appear at the very dawn of the 20th century."
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Picnic basket kits with placeholders for dishes, silverware and glasses first appeared in the early 20th century. The one seen here is from the early 1960s.