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How to Host a Victorian Picnic

In the dog days of summer, one often desires a happy excursion to whittle away the hours with family and friends. What better way to do so than to arrange a Victorian summer picnic? Eating al fresco has been popular throughout history. The word "picnic" first appeared around 1740 and was derived from two French words: "piquer" which meant "to pick at food" and "nique," meaning "something small of no value." But they were even popular before Georgian era. During the Medieval era, picnics were included as an important part of hunting parties. They featured rich foods such as cooked hams, roasted meat, poultry, pies and tarts.

Picnics became most popular during the Queen Victoria's reign in England. Victorians delighted in picnicking and made it quite fashionable. Picnics were held at families' homes or other scenic locations. Although servants often attended wealthy families on picnics, they were casual gatherings, and only a few servants were required to be present.

Victorian etiquette prescribed that careful consideration should be taken in choosing an appropriate site for a picnic. Even though a view near a cliff may have been quite breathtaking, such spots were considered to alarm the ladies present. Gentlemen had to be careful not to seat their guests near ant hills or places without proper shade. Before you send your invitations out, make sure you find a pleasing site with sufficient, but not too much, sunshine for the time of the picnic; plenty of air movement for cool breezes, and healthy grass. Location can make or break your outdoor summer event!

During the 19th century, each guest often brought along a dish for a picnic, but eventually, it became customary for one family to organize and provide the food for the picnic. Armed with baskets filled with dishes and utensils, Victorians believed picnics should be just as civilized as eating in a dining room. And the food was just as sumptuous: iced champagne rolled in wet newspapers to preserve the chill, lobster tails with homemade mayonnaise, cold poached chicken with cream sauce, trifle (chunks of pound cake, fresh fruit, rich custard and cream) and whiskey punch to wash it all down. And Victorian picnickers did not dream of eating outdoors without a kerosene burner to boil their kettles for tea. Thus, the true mark of a Victorian picnic is to make sure your food is more than cold cuts and chips. Prepare your menu as if you were hosting a proper meal in your home. And your dishes need not be overly rich or time-consuming to prepare; our Recipes section features a number of simple recipes for tea sandwiches that would be perfectly appealing for a picnic.

After the last dessert was served, those with musical talents were expected to entertain the party. Games like croquet, tag and blind man's bluff were played. Ladies often conversed with each other. Some would explore the area and look for flowers or wild mushrooms. Men and women followed rules of propriety. It was not looked upon favorably if they wandered away from the party alone for too long. Therefore, when planning your picnic, allow your guests sufficient time to enjoy the surrounding area, and come prepared with some leisures activities in mind (frisbee rather than croquet, for example).

Finally, remember to keep your guests well hydrated, as any thirsty child or adult is more likely not to enjoy an otherwise well-planned outdoor event. Depending on the time of day that you host your picnic, sun and heat exposure can make any guest somewhat listless and irritable. During the Victorian era, drinking lemonade on one's porch was a popular pasttime in the summers. A "ladies-only" light luncheon may also have been served. In our Recipes section, you can find a simple recipe for lavender lemonade, a drink enjoyed during the 19th century. Consider serving your lemonade in an antique style, glass footed pitcher and tumblers. Victorians believed the violet-hued glass preserved good tidings within their homes.