The word picnic has French origins, likely from the verb “piquer” (to pick) and the noun “nique” (a small amount). The term pique-nique was first used in a French satire in 1649, Les Charmans effects des barricades, ou l’amité durable de la compagnie des freres Bachiques de Pique-Nique. The main character is named Pique-Nique and is a hero of the people who are standing against food shortages. But hypocrisy arises when Pique-Nique shows his glutinous ways. Within 50 years of its publication, the term ‘pique-nique’ had transformed from being a pejorative to being used to describe a more fashionable dinner where each guest contributed a dish to the meal.

But it was in the 18th century when the picnic really started to come into popularity. But they were still events to be celebrated indoors, particularly among the aristocracy. Like the popular Salons of the day, they were imbued with wit and intellectual conversation. When the French Revolution struck, the idea behind the picnic fled to other parts of Europe along with the aristocracy. In England a “Pic Nic” Society formed where guests would bring food and six bottles of wine. There would be merriment and an amateur play performance. The movement took off and theater owners began worrying about Pic Nics taking their business. It was during this time that the middle class caught on to the picnic tradition and formed their own, which looks much closer to the one we know in the modern world. These were much more subtle affairs. They were moved outdoors and did not require guests to bring such extravagant dishes. It became a genteel event where the urban middle class could go out to the idealized countryside for a short while. This is the tradition that was spread to the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Picnics continue their literary traditions, and  as early as 1806, writers mention this middle class version. The first reference was in a children’s book, The Courtship, Merry Marriage, and Pic-Nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren by John Harris. Two years later, Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of writer and poet William Wordsworth, spoke of the picnic and the origins of the words whilst picnicking with 18 other people on Grasmere Island. In England and the United States, the outdoor bucolic picnic became a popular pastime, allowing the urbanites to flee the city in childlike wonder to the innocence of the countryside. But in France, the resurgence of the picnic after the French Revolution kept it an indoor affair, often in restaurants. The writer, George Sand, had fond memories of ‘a seize heures en piquenique’ with one of her amorous admirers.

The idea of picnics in restaurants where everyone gathered and split the bill became popular throughout the classes in France. But it took a little while for the outdoor picnic to gain favor as during the 18th century as Realism took hold rejecting the idealized versions celebrated by the earlier Romantics, eating outdoors was not seen as wholesome and innocent, rather it was decadent and wicked. But, luckily the tradition lives on, and we have great literary works by Jane Austen, M. Somerset Maugham, and E. M. Forster that add to this long standing tradition.

Jane Austen writes of a picnic in her novel, Emma,

“Mrs. Elton was very much disappointed. It was the delay of a great deal of pleasure and parade. Her introductions and recommendations must all wait, and every projected party be still only talked of. So she thought at first;—but a little consideration convinced her that every thing need not be put off. Why should not they explore to Box Hill though the Sucklings did not come? They could go there again with them in the autumn. It was settled that they should go to Box Hill. That there was to be such a party had been long generally known: it had even given the idea of another.
Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what every body found so well worth seeing, and she and Mr. Weston had agreed to chuse some fine morning and drive thither. Two or three more of chosen only were to be admitted to join them, and it was to be done in a quiet, unpretending, elegant way, infinitely superior to he bustle and preparation, the regular eating and drinking, and picnic parade of the Eltons and the Sucklings.”

M. Somerset Maugham may have said it best in Razor’s Edge, “There are few things so pleasant as a picnic lunch eaten in perfect comfort” The scene continued to discuss what should be served, which may seem much more ornate than the typical sandwiches and fruit often found in today’s picnics, “‘The old Duchesse d’Uzès used to tell me that the most recalcitrant male becomes amenable to suggestion in these conditions. What will you give them for luncheon?’
‘Stuffed eggs and a chicken sandwich.”‘
‘Nonsense. You can’t have a picnic without pâté de foie gras. You must give them curried shrimps to start with, breast of chicken in aspic, with a heart-of-lettuce salad for which I’ll make the dressing myself, and after the pâté if you like, as a concession to your American habits, an apple pie.’
‘I shall give them stuffed eggs and a chicken sandwich, Elliott,’ said Mrs. Bradley with decision.

The picnic also plays a prominent role in E. M. Forster’s novel, A Room with a View. On a country outing, the party stops and enjoys the countryside. Mr. Beebe “had lost everyone, and had consumed in solitude the tea-basket which he had brought up as a pleasant surprise.”  It is also during this impromptu picnic scene where Lucy and George share a moment.

But it is not just literature that celebrates this outdoor tradition. Artists have also depicted picnics in paintings for centuries. Whether it was a mythological scene of Pan in the forest or an allegory of Peace and War (Rubens), picnics have been portrayed by the great masters. Even Claude Monet painted the subject. in his “Luncheon on the Grass,” not to be confused with the painting of the same name by Manet, Monet paints a pastoral scene of women in beautiful white dresses with the most delicate dappled light shining through the trees.