Culture //

The history of the picnic

Reflecting on New South Wales’ new favourite pass-time.

Image credit: William Meppem.

In Japan, individuals congregate under a blossoming cherry tree; a picnic blanket is laid out and topped with wine glasses filled with red in France; and in Iran they sprawl across a roundabout, an isle of calm amid traffic. Picnics are a core element of many cultures around the world — but at the moment their popularity is surging in New South Wales, under the current COVID-19 restrictions. 

Playwright William Somerset Maugham wrote, “there are few things so pleasant as a picnic lunch”; and indeed, for many vaccinated Sydneysiders, the picnic now represents a crumb of freedom after almost three months of lockdown. What can now be relished in by the vaccinated was once a privilege afforded to the aristocracy. Picnics grew in popularity during the 18th Century, but began as a very COVID-unsafe indoor activity. Each attendee was expected to pay a share of the costs or contribute to the lavish affair with extravagant plates of food. Picnics were synonymous with balls — they often attracted many attendees, music was played and an elegant dance followed the meal. 

Just as the French Revolution deposed its aristocracy, the conventions of the picnic were also thrown out the window and rebuilt. Francophiles in London founded a ‘Pic Nic Society’ in 1801 that brought a rustic feel; yet, it was still a fight to outdo other attendees in extravagance. The Pic Nics ran amateurish plays alongside luxurious dining, which began to pose a threat to the theatre industry. Before long, the owner of Drury Lane theatre endeavoured to shut down the Pic Nics, and they were ridiculed in the media. Despite this, francophilia was slowly trickling down (unlike the riches) to the emerging middle class. With everyone desperate to hold a picnic of their own, they were reshaped to be outdoors, and simpler. 

The outdoor picnic soon shone into contemporary Western literature; Jane Austen depicted an awkward outdoor gathering in Emma, and it became a titular feature in the Australian mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The bucolic simplicity of a picnic began to grow in appeal across the world, in particular for the middle class. For the British and Americans, picnics were an idyllic pause from the grisly industrial world, and paired with Romanticism, an artistic movement that lauded nature above all else. As social mores relaxed and the working class in many countries started picnicking, the French remained reluctant. Many feared appearing overly decadent, and becoming like the aristocracy they detested. Nevertheless, the French eventually returned to their roots – the picnic basket. 

Nowadays, the picnic is enjoyed worldwide. Finally, it has lost its genteel feel and found a strong base of camaraderie and kinship. Though the contents of our contemporary baskets may differ from the intelligentsia every time we spread a blanket, we are adding another layer to the complex history of picnics. The story of picnics is now in our hands, and how we inscribe its future is up to us. It is safe to say that Covid picnics will be a turning point for which future picnic-enthusiasts will reminisce. 

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