Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs. By the early 1800s the linguistic battles between the French and the English were over and “picnics” were firmly located outside in a natural setting. In The Picnic: A History, Walter Levy defines a picnic as “an outdoor meal distinguished from other meals because it requires the leisure to get away from home. It is the antithesis of established social routine and work, for it is only by breaking out of the workaday world to play, party, eat, and drink that one can picnic.”
With industrialization and the accompanying migration toward urban areas at the turn of the 20th century, picnics shifted from the elaborate Elizabethan country parties and grand Victorian affairs—complete with tables, linens, crystal, and servants—to the casual, mobile fare of the middle and lower classes. Working class families felt the urge to escape the close quarters and fast pace of the city and to enjoy a leisurely lunch in a meadow or on the banks of a picturesque stream. The invention of the automobile and made picnics even easier to execute and allowed picnickers to travel greater distances to find the perfect spot.
Picnics became an integral part of rural society as well. Church, school, or community picnics in more isolated areas often served as the only opportunities for women to socialize with other women. Wives and mothers took it upon themselves to organize picnics around holidays or anniversaries to ensure they had plenty of diversions to look forward to throughout the year.
Both adults and children competed in athletic games, footraces, and tug-of-war at these events. In A History of Children’s Play: New Zealand, 1840–1950, Brian Sutton-Smith details the games commonly played at these rural community picnics: Farmer in the Dell, Forfeits, Musical Chairs, Simon Says, Hide the Thimble, and partnering games of interest to adolescents and young adults such as Kiss in the Ring and Jolly Miller.
The company picnic is another form of the community picnic. As America approached the 21st century, globalization and technological innovation began to blur the lines between work life and life outside of work. People began to spend more time with their colleagues at the office than with neighbors, fellow parishioners, or extended family. As a reward for employees’ hard work and their families’ sacrifice, employers organized annual picnics where everyone—from mailroom clerk to the CEO—could mingle, nosh, and look silly running a sack race. Many companies bring games and community-building activities into the workplace to inspire innovation and loyalty as illustrated by Microsoft’s Ross Smith in his interview with the American Journal of Play. Every day can be a picnic—even at work!
This Labor Day, enjoy the last gasp of the summer: get outdoors, eat a little too much, and play some games with your friends and family. You just can’t argue with five centuries of tradition!