As urban parks expanded, so did new possibilities for recreation, including the picnic.
Born from the French word pique-nique, the English “picnic” was first used in 1748 England to describe a party with card playing, drinking, and conversation. By 1810, the picnic included food as a central detail and moved outdoors. By 1830, the term had adopted the sense of nostalgia still recognizable in the custom today.
The picnic, as evidenced by the picturesque 19th century landscape paintings of Thomas Cole and William Bennet, represented an idealized and romantic celebration of the natural world. It was an outing that combined beauty and leisure, two increasingly attainable amenities for more classes of citizens. While parkland expanded, labor organizers secured the right to shorter working hours, which, via the principles of supply and demand, also led to higher wages. By the end of the 19th century, the middle class had more opportunity for picnicking than ever before, with access to both land and time.
The images here are a small set of examples of folks throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries enjoying gardens, picnics, and camaraderie in public space.
graces in a high wind - A scene taken from nature, in Kensington Gardens and The graces in a high wind - A scene taken from nature, in Kensington Gardens
Santa Monica I.O.G.T. May Day Picnic, 1895
Garden of the Zocalo, City of Mexico
Four men, one a Catholic priest, posing in a garden
Picnic on the Hampton grounds
Picnic west of Syracuse about 1885
Barn raising party : women's spoon race