The first day of Spring is next week, Sunday March 20 to be exact, and Easter is soon thereafter. So we all know what that means: Egg Hunts and Picnics! Here in Kentucky we literally had three inches of snow on March 12, but the birds kept on chirping, and with Kentucky weather the weirdest in the US, I tend to trust the birdies. I am ready for the warm days when I can clean up my garden, plant new flowers, and relax on my awesome patio furniture sipping sweet tea. My picnic days are largely behind me, but I have fond memories of afternoons with my kids in the park. Therefore, I am sharing a post from my blog on picnic history, with an excerpt to boot.
The scene shared below is from my first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One, and takes place while the newlywed Darcys are on their honeymoon. I admit when I wrote that scene, it never entered my mind to question the etymology of “picnic” or whether the activity itself was historically accurate. When my editor expressed concern over the accuracy of picnics in the Regency, I was so taken aback I didn’t immediately remember the famed Box Hill picnic in Jane Austen’s Emma. Instead, I did what I always do: got on Google and started searching! I could have saved some time if I had recalled the pivotal picnic in Emma, but as it turns out, the history of both the word and the activity is rather fascinating, as most history is.
“What are we to do with ourselves today?” Lizzy asked at one point. “Have you made any specific plans?”
Darcy put the newspaper down and gave his full attention to his wife. “Nothing specific,” he replied. “We could always stay here all day.” He gave his wife a naughty leer. “I am sure we could dream up something to occupy our time. Or if you would rather, the village is quite close so we could ramble through it and see if there is anything that you wish to purchase. The Hamiltons have a gig available, if you wish to take a drive in the country or around the lake. The weather appears to be fine enough for a drive. Too bad it is winter, as a picnic would be an agreeable pastime.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Oh? Did a law pass of which I am unaware that we can only enjoy our meals outdoors in the spring or summer?”
He was surprised. “I did not mean to imply that such activities are unlawful in the winter, Mrs. Darcy, as you well know! I am solicitous regarding your comfort, however. It is late November and quite cold outside.”
Lizzy laughed. “Honestly, William, I thought you knew me better than that! When has the weather ever hindered me?”
“As you wish, Madame. A picnic it shall be. I beg one concession, however. You must endure my fussing over you and not argue if I deem it is too chilly to remain outdoors. Agreed?” She nodded her assent, smiling placidly.
A book of verse beneath the bough,
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Ah, wilderness were paradise enow!
—Omar Khayyam, in his 12th century Rubaiyat
Folks for millennia did have outdoor meals on a lawn spread blanket, but it would likely have been called a “dinner alfresco” rather than a “picnic” for a good long while. The painting above, of a nobleman dining with his companions under the trees, dates to the 15th century.
The first usage of the word picnic was by the French, traced to 1692’s Origines de la Langue Française de Ménage, which mentions “pique-nique” as being of recent French origin. It was a term used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. Generally, the term retained the connotation of a meal where everyone contributed something, rather like our modern potluck. Pique is a French word meaning to “pick, peck, or nab” and nique is a nonsensical word, probably added for humor, but also possibly influenced by a German word meaning “little pieces or worthless things.”
Thus, a “pique-nique” differed from a lavish banquet as it was a small, informal meal in which the guests picked little pieces of food as they chose.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was in 1748 that the word picnic first appeared in an English text. In a letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son, picnic was used to describe a fashionable, but casual, indoor assembly where each person contributed food, the gathering associated with card-playing, drinking, and conversation. Lord Chesterfield’s son was in Berlin at the time, and interestingly enough, the German’s used the word “picknick” very commonly for such social gatherings. Whether the Germans were influenced by the French pique-nique or not is open to debate. Additionally, it is not precisely known whether the English were influenced by the French or German words. Sort of an etymology chicken-or-egg discussion! What is clear is that the term was typically applied to indoor events for the elite to show off their cooking skills, as well as other talents.
Over the next several decades, elites began the practice of hosting an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors. These types of classy outings were in stark contrast to an agricultural worker’s dinner in a field or the rustic repast while hunting. The 1723 painting above by François Lemoyne offers a melding of the two with the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen dining outside in the context of a hunt. Note too that the painting is titled “Hunt Picnic” indicating the usage of the term twenty-five years before it appeared in a written text (at least as far as has been discovered).
Suffice to say, dining out-of-doors was a very common activity for both the wealthy and the common man, usually as a needed respite while on hunting forays, as mentioned previously, but also purely for pleasure. For the bourgeoisie class, open-air meals of cold food rapidly became social gatherings and were often extremely elaborate. English history shows that such events boomed in the years following the French wars, with Royal Parks widely opened to the public. It was during these first two decades of the 18th century that the OED recognizes that the indoor pleasure parties known as picnics shifted to an outside, natural and often rustic location. The rapid shift has never been explained, except to point to the Romantic nature of this time in English history. Picnics became leisurely pastimes offering the pleasures of rural walking and the picturesque, along with the joy of dining. In less than twenty years, an invitation to a picnic would signify a completely different set of customs, clothes, social groupings, behaviors, food, settings, and values.
In 1802, the Prince of Wales – who would soon be the Prince Regent – formed the Picnic Society. This was an exclusive social group that met to eat and perform plays that they wrote themselves. Members met in the Pantheon on Oxford Street, and each member was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments with no one particular host. Interest in the society waned in the 1850s as the founders died. Luckily, the concept of picnicking has carried on!