Play Stuff Blog

The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together  

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.”

 Published by the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in the 1920s, Picnic Time intersperses testimonials about the wonders of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Pills for Constipation or Vegetable Compound with recipes for picnic dishes and suggestions for picnic games. Picnic Time, booklet, The Strong, Rochester, New York

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.

 The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word in Rochester sponsors yearly picnics at various local parks. Church members are grilling in this photograph from June 1980. A role often taken by men, the barbecue grill-master is an important one at such functions.Photograph, Gift of William J. Tribelhorn, The Strong, Rochester, New York

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.

Even video game pioneers needed time to play! The Atari Coin-Op Division Corporate Records collection has many artifacts that document life as an Atari employee—from internal memos to proofs for the 1991 company picnic t-shirt. This photo is one of four photos showing a small group of employees in the 1970s bonding and blowing off steam at a small lake.Atari Coin-Op Division Corporate Records, photograph, The Strong, Rochester, New York

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!

The picnic has long been portrayed in art, literature, and film as a romantic outing. The allure of being alone on a blanket with your beloved out in the wildness of nature proved irresistible to many a young adult, including Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse's Picnic, book, The Strong, Rochester, New York

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!