No Ants Were Harmed At These Picnics Of The Past

Jul 3, 2014
Originally published on July 3, 2014 1:58 pm

When summertime rolls around, we're all for eating outdoors, but the American heyday of the picnic may very well have been the 1950s.

Convenience food was newly popular; many mothers stayed home and had time to pack everything just right. Tupperware was taking off, picnic tables popped up on roadsides, and an outing in the fresh country air was often just what the doctor ordered.

And both the meal and the company could be customized to the hosts' tastes. "The picnic may be a romantic dejeuner sur l'herbe for two, or a gathering of the clan; it may be simple as a sandwich in wax paper, or as elaborate as appetite, inclination and purse will allow," wrote epicure James Beard in his 1960 Treasury of Outdoor Cooking.

Of course, his picnic style was pretty elaborate, requiring "the largest linen dinner napkins I have" and "good china plates" to go with meals like "Thermos of chilled martinis, olives, nuts, celery sticks, cold broiled chicken halves, Bermuda onion sandwiches on homemade bread, chilled peeled tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, apples or peaches," and last but not least, strong coffee.

But other mid-century picnic notions, like this 1950s Armour poultry ad, could involve a few beers, some cold fried or roasted chicken, corn on the cob and maybe a slice of cherry pie. Even the stable hand and horse trainer appear to be enjoying their simple improvised meal. We were wondering: What's in those tin cups?

The families that so often appeared in the ads from this era were happy and carefree. The couples were young and mostly white.

Two teens somehow make sharing celery and Morton salt look romantic in a picnic in the rain.

Picnics are not a 20th century invention. In fact, they have been paths of escape to the outdoors for centuries — think of the 19th century picnics of Jane Austen novels, with servants and candelabras and oriental rugs.

And it's far from a uniquely American tradition. The Japanese have their bento boxes and the Indians pack up tiffins to transport food to wherever they want to eat it.

So no matter what you pack for you picnic or what you pack it in, get out of the house and enjoy the brief escape from the ordinary.

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