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Grab your basket, your bug spray, and your blanket of choice: it’s time for a historic picnic with the help of Mary Ellen W. Hern. Picnics of the past were not just an opportunity to chow down on deviled eggs and play a few games, writes Hern—they were about Romanticism, decadence, and sensuousness, too.

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Americans started picnicking as early as the 1830s, writes Hern, picking up on the custom from Europeans. Intrigued by natural landscapes and enamored with Romantic principles of communion with nature, Americans hurried into the great outdoors to find “a nostalgic respite from industrial life.”

Early picnickers preferred grand views and picturesque settings, Hern notes, including new urban parks that offered a kind of pseudo-countryside for people eager to recreate a pastoral scene. They were even prescribed as a way to reach health—what could be more wholesome than an afternoon outdoors?

But picnics weren’t always entirely innocent. Hern writes that “a striking aspect of the American Victorian picnic ritual was its sensuousness.” From over-the-top feasts to “mild sexual license,” she writes, Americans saw picnics as a way to let loose and indulge. They even encouraged flirtation, sexual games, and opportunities to indulge in a bit of hanky-panky along with all that food.

Ultimately, writes Hern, picnics offered Victorian Americans a chance to give in to their most leisurely, indulgent moods—even ones that would have been frowned upon indoors. The result were events that loomed large in participants’ memories; “a day in nature for feasting, amusements, privacy amid the masses, and freedom.” A day in the sun has never sounded so appealing.


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Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 24, No. 2/3 (Summer - Autumn, 1989), pp. 139-152
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.