For most modern picnickers, these outings call for paper plates, paper cups, thermos bottles, Coleman coolers, plenty of ice, and as many convenience foods as possible. The tactile world in the Victorian era was vastly different. The pic-nic (hyphenated, as it was in 1880s issues of the Cape May Wave) was indeed a moveable feast, and was a heavy load for family members to carry.
In an era before plastic bottles and paper plates, picnic accouterments were the "real thing": ceramic plates, real glassware, metal flatware, earthenware crocks, metal pots and pans, wine bottles, teacups and saucers, etc. If a large number of people were invited, the amount of utensils and victuals must have been backbreaking.
In the Physick House dining room and kitchen, we are displaying some of the typical picnic accessories a Victorian family probably took along. Baskets, quilts and tablecloths, dishes, glasses, flatware, crocks, platters, bottles, and even a hand-held ice shaver are being packed for the excursion. Perhaps the Physicks are off to Cape May Point for an afternoon of relaxation. If they're lucky, perhaps they'll be able to visit the lighthouse. After all, as the Cape May Wave observed in July of 1882, the lighthouse keeper, "Mr. Samuel Stillwell, takes great pleasure in showing visitors (who have the nerve and strength of limb) to the top, the interior of the lantern, and explaining the interesting operations of the light. A very picturesque view of the sea, bay and country may also be obtained from the giddy heights of the edifice."
The Victorians marked the passing of the summer season with popular community pic-nics to celebrate Decoration Day (a.k.a. Memorial Day), Independence Day, and Labor Day. A typical summer holiday celebration might include attending morning church services or patriotic orations, marking the solemnity or historical nature of the holiday, which would be followed by the whole town's gathering at a park or green for a pic-nic celebration. "Picnics, as the photography of the period documents, were dress-up times; women might wear one of the stylish lingerie dresses, while men often sported a coat and tie." (Schlereth: 212) In 1886 in Cape May, a Decoration Day memorial service was rained out, but the newspaper reported that "the pretty white dresses the girls had ready for Decoration Day will do just as well for the next pic-nic."
Typical picnic fare could include a simple menu of fried chicken, cornbread, cold salads, beer, lemonade, or Root Beer, which was touted as the "National Temperance Drink" invented by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles E. Hires. But, the menu for a large outdoor gathering could also be rather extensive. Imagine preparing, packing, and transporting all of the following provisions listed in Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861:
Bill of Fare for a Picnic for Forty Persons A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collard calf's head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers.
Stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked; 3 or 4 dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blanc-manges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs. of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), 4 loaves of household bread, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits, 1/2 lb. of tea. Coffee is not suitable for a picnic, being difficult to make.
Things not to be forgotten at a Picnic A stick of horseradish, a bottle of mint-sauce well corked, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of vinegar, made mustard, pepper, salt, good oil, and pounded sugar. If it can be managed, take a little ice. It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine-glasses, knives, forks, and spoons, must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers, 3 or 4 teapots, some lump sugar, and milk, if this last-named article cannot be obtained in the neighbourhood. Take 3 corkscrews.
Beverages--3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger-beer, soda-water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne `a discretion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy. Water can usually be obtained; so it is useless to take it.
S.L. Louis in his Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of 1883 suggested proper planning and behaviors for a picnic. Imagine a picnic with singing, dancing (with an orchestra!), servants, croquet, and lobster:
Picnics In giving a picnic, the great thing to remember is to be sure and have enough to eat and drink. Always provide for the largest possible number of guests that may by any chance come. Send out your invitations three weeks beforehand, in order that you may be enabled to fill up your list, if you have many refusals.
Always transport your guests to the scene of action in covered carriages, or carriages that are capable of being covered, in order that you may be provided against rain, which is proverbial on such occasions. Send a separate conveyance containing the provisions, in charge of two or three servants--not too many, as half the fun is lost if the gentlemen do not officiate as amateur waiters.
The above rules apply to picnics which are given by one person, and to which invitations are sent out just the same as to an ordinary ball or dinner party. But there are picnics and picnics as the French say. Let us treat of the picnic to which a lot of people join together for the purpose of a day's ruralizing. In this case, it is usual for the ladies to contribute the viands. The gentlemen should provide and superintend all the arrangements for the conveyance of the guests to and from the scene of festivity.
How to Dress
Great latitude in dress is allowed on these occasions. The ladies all come in morning dresses and hats; the gentlemen in light coats, wide-awake hats, caps, or straw hats. In fact, the morning dress of the seaside is de rigueur at a picnic. After dinner it is usual to pass the time in singing, or if there happens to be an orchestra of any kind, in dancing. This is varied by games of all kinds, croquet, &c. Frequently after this the company breaks up into little knots and coteries, each having it own centre of amusement.
Duties of Gentlemen
Each gentleman should endeavor to do his utmost to be amusing on these occasions. If he has a musical instrument, and can play it, let him bring it--for instance, a cornet, which is barely tolerated in a private drawing room, is a great boon, when well played at a picnic. On these occasions a large bell or gong should be taken, in order to summon the guests when required; and the guests should be careful to attend the call all at once, for many a pleasant party of this kind has been spoiled by a few selfish people keeping out of the way when wanted.
Committee of Arrangements
Finally, it would be well on these occasions to have each department vested in the hands of one responsible person, in order that when we begin dinner we should not find a heap of forks but no knives, beef, but no mustard, lobster and lettuces but no salad dressing, pies but no bread, and nearly fifty other such contretemps, which are sure to come about unless the matter is properly looked after and organized.
Smaller groups of people probably embarked on these mini-adventures quite often. The Cape May Wave of April 15, 1882 mentions locations on the Bay side of the Cape as favorite destinations for "pic-nic excursion parties." A note in the May 24, 1886 Wave observed, "pic-nics are thawing out."
Of course, small groups of picnickers didn't necessarily need to travel large distances to enjoy an alfresco feast. Sometimes it was just as pleasant (and much easier!) to enjoy the great outdoors in one's own back yard. Since home horticulture had become such a popular pastime in the Victorian era, one's own back yard could become quite the horticultural achievement, filled with fine specimens of trees, plants and flowers finely arranged and manicured (remember the P.E. gardening exhibit in May; home gardening became a popular pastime).
Our historic photograph of the front of the Physick Estate shows that the Physicks' property was impressively planted and landscaped with numerous varieties of trees, plants, shrubs, and flowers, in a rather rustic style. A back yard picnic could be an exciting natural adventure--a foray into the "outdoor parlor" for a game of croquet or a stroll in the shade. Of course, the Victorians didn't have resin chairs and folding aluminum chaise lounges in which to recline and relax. An outdoor parlor was often outfitted with indoor furniture. It was not uncommon to take a dining room table, chairs, and even a carpet outside to provide all the comforts of the great indoors for the great outdoors.