“A table spread in the shade…everything as natural and simple as possible.”
—Jane Austen, Emma
Ahhhh summer…that exuberant succession of fair-weather months strung together with long days and balmy nights. The gardens are a riot of color, dappled in sunlight and abuzz with bees. The whole world is alive and abloom and bursting with potential—inspiring travel, adventure, socializing. What summer pastime better mingles such pleasures than a good, old-fashioned picnic?
A Brief History:
An inherently ritualistic people, the Victorians reveled in seasonally-inspired customs and traditions. The picnic was one such beloved Victorian tradition, but contrary to what Jane Austen may suggest, picnics were often far from simple. The working classes—bound to cramped urban living—necessarily resorted to informal potluck picnics in city parks. But for the leisure classes, hosting a picnic was an elaborate affair requiring a great deal of planning, organization, and effort, thus earning the nickname “a moveable feast.”
In an attempt to understand the role of the picnic in Victorian popular culture, let us first examine its definition within the context of the 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary originally defined the word “picnic” as “a pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors.” And so we see, a picnic was far more than a mere meal enjoyed outdoors, but an expedition of sorts. Andrew Hubbell, author of How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture, takes this notion a step further, suggesting that for British Victorians, picnicking was an ideological pursuit that reinforced important social and nationalistic bonds:
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 behaviour. It means creating a moveable feast and overcoming difficulties and inconveniences…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.
How to Host A Victorian Picnic:
While al fresco dining was certainly more relaxed than a formal meal à table, it was still strictly governed by rules of social etiquette. Various household management manuals and etiquette guides of the day offered detailed instructions about what to wear, what to serve, which activities to plan, how to scout a perfect location, and how to properly set up and break down a site.
What to Wear:
In terms of appropriate garb, one manual warned:
Be careful to dress for the entertainment after consulting the barometer and the thermometer and after learning the geography of the objective point of the day. A woolen dress that is not too heavy nor yet too new, or a cotton one that is not too thin; solid, easy shoes, that have a friendliness for the feet because of prolonged intimacy with them; pretty, but not too fine or thin stockings; a hat that has a broad brim; a large sun-shade or a sun-umbrella; at least two fresh handkerchiefs; a jacket to wear when returning home; and a rug or traveling-shawl to spread upon the ground at dinner time are among the requisites of personal comfort and prettiness.
What to Bring:
Lawn chairs, blankets and hammocks were often employed to soften the scene and promote relaxation. For more formal picnics, however, it was not unheard of for the dining room table and chairs to be packed on a wagon and transported for the occasion! In any case, tableware ranging from wood to tin to china were packed along with silverware into wicker hampers.
One 19th c. manual stated, “For the feast, forget not the napkins, forks, spoons and the luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar and a bottle of cream or can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee.”
What to Serve:
Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth’s Queen of the Household from 1900 makes numerous recommendations for planning a picnic spread. The ideal picnic fare, she says, should be easy to handle and “bear traveling without looking dejected and sullen.” She goes on to say that “the best and most convenient of all out-of-door edibles, is the sandwich.” Both sweet and savory sandwiches were popular, ranging in filling from meat spreads made of minced ham, beef and chicken mixed with mayonnaise to sweet fillings of butter, marmalades, and preserves. Pickled vegetables and preserved fruits were served on the side along with crackers, cheese, and canned sardines.
For dessert, pound cake, sponge cake, and fruit cake were popular as well as fresh and candied fruits.
Refreshments mainly consisted of iced tea and lemonade. According to Mrs. Ellsworth, “One really requires no wine at an al-fresco feast, even if accustomed to use it at a home dinner. The exhilaration of the air is quite sufficient for the needs of digestion. If wine must be carried, claret is best, because it is never served with ice, the most fastidious of wine-tasters insisting that its flavor is injured if it is not drunk while of the same temperature as the atmosphere.” We may be inclined to disagree with her on this point 🙂
Additionally, she offers two detailed seasonal menus for spring and summer from which to pick and choose:
Bill of fare for a spring picnic: Cold Roast Chicken. Sandwiches of Potted Rabbit. Bewitched Veal. Small Rolls with Salad Filling. Cold Baked Ham. Egg Salad. Buttered Rolls. Hard Boiled Eggs. Crackers. Chow Chow. Bombay Toast. Pickles. Orange Marmalade. Quince Jelly. Sugared Strawberries. White Cake. Almond Cake. Coconut Jumbles. Lemonade. Tea Cakes. Raspberry Vinegar. Bill of fare for a summer picnic: Cold Boiled Chicken. Tongue Sandwiches. Spiced Beef. Sardines. Jellied Chicken. Pickled Salmon. Spanish Pickles. Sweet Peach Pickles. Boston Brown Bread. Beans. Fresh Fruits. Imperial Cake. Neapolitan Cake. Small Fancy Cakes.
A Couple Authentic Victorian Picnic Recipes:
Chicken Salad Sandwiches (Adapted from “Anna Maria’s Housekeeper,” by Mrs. S.D. Power, 1884)
1 pound cold cooked chicken (about 2 boneless breasts)
6 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 cup mayonnaise
8 slices homemade bread
Chop chicken very fine, or mince. Place chicken in bowl and mix in parsley and just enough mayonnaise to moisten mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Slice bread very thin. Make sandwiches, wrap each in plastic wrap, then in paper napkin and tie with ribbon. Makes 4 sandwiches.
Victorian Gingerbread (From The Old Farmer’s Almanac, est. 1792)
1 cup sugar
1 cup melted butter
1 cup sour cream
1 cup dark molasses
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pinch of cinnamon and of mace
Beat the eggs well and add to them the sour cream, molasses and sugar. Stir in the flour sifted with the soda and spices. Add the melted butter and beat well. Fill a cake pan ¾ full and bake the gingerbread in a moderate (325 degrees F) oven for about 35 minutes, or until done. Serve hot as a bread for tea with butter, or hot with whipped cream as a dessert which is particularly popular with children, or serve cold as a cake.
What to Do:
An 1891 etiquette manual instructs that pre-determined activities follow the picnic to include group singing and music-making, storytelling, games, sports, and walks. A courting couple might even pair off and speak privately, but chaperones were enlisted to ensure that nothing unseemly transpired.
An Enduring Tradition:
The summer picnic is a tradition we still hold dear. And while there are far fewer rules and regulations governing our picnic ventures now-a-days, the unique satisfaction of packing up a wicker basket, grabbing an old quilt, and posting up under a shade tree on a sunny afternoon with pleasant company has remained the same. Wishing you many blissful moments spent dining al-fresco this season!
“Emma: Picnicking on Box Hill.” Jane Austen’s World. Mar 2008. <https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/emma-picnicking-on-box-hill/>.
Treese, Lorett. “A Very Civilized Affair : Picnics: When Victorians ate outdoors, they brought their dining rooms with them.” 18 July 1991. <https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-07-18-fo-3141-story.html>.
“Picnic Ideas: How to Have a Victorian Style Picnic.” Victoriana Magazine. http://www.victoriana.com/partyplanning/how-to-have-a-victorian-picnic.html
“Picnics.” Food Timeline. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpicnics.html>.
“Victorian Gingerbread.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac. <https://www.almanac.com/recipe/victorian-gingerbread#>.