• Kate Hanfling, Volunteer

#National Picnic Day: Picnicking in Colonial America

Though the concept of the American picnic as we know it today only dates back to the 19th century, picnics in some form have been around for much longer. The earliest European gatherings (that we really know of) date back to 14th century European hunting feasts that were eaten out of doors before the chase began. You might also think of Robin Hood and his merry men enjoying bread, cheese, and ale and relaxing in the forest. The word 'picnic' is first recorded in English in the 18th century, but appears in French in the 17th, “piquenique,” from the verb “piquer” to prick or peck and “nique” a diminutive. “Piquenique” literally means a little peck.

There are many different cultural gatherings employed around the world that are similar to the European ‘picnic’ idea. Potlatches, gatherings in Canada by the indigenous people, often featured large amounts of food and people coming together. The purpose of a Potlatch was a display of wealth and an opportunity to both give and boast gifts. Hunting feasts are held in many cultures, often focusing on a celebration of the catch or hunting party’s success with game. While they may not go by the term 'picnic', they certainly involve the typical key ingredients: people, outdoor gathering, food, and fun!


Bruegel - The Harvesters (1565) and Monet - luncheon on the grass (1866-1867)


Fast forward a bit in history and you see the picnic come into its own during the Victorian era in England where formal garden parties were popular, and post-revolutionary France when suddenly the public was allowed into formerly royal or private parks. Dickens and Austen both wrote about picnics in their novels, and if you turn your eye to impressionist painting in France, you find picnics as a subject in Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, and Seurat to name a few. As we move forward into the mid 1800’s, we find the picnic becoming a term used throughout many cultures here in America to refer to a special gathering or time of celebration outdoors featuring food, fun, and good company.