A Picnic in 1791 is Not a Lunch on the Grass – At Least, Not For Everyone..."
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
By Christian Robardey-Tanner
"A picnic is a rustic meal, taken in the open. Unlike snack - a simple meal quickly eaten, picnic is a pleasant meal, prepared in advance, that often lasts quite some time. It's taken outdoors (in the country, in a garden, on a beach, etc.) At first designed to allow to enjoy nice weather and nature, picnic is also a pretext to meet with family or friends. Often consisting of cold dishes, picnic can also be upgraded with meat cooked on a skewer or grilled (barbecue)."
Based on these 4 semantic features, the anonymous author of this Wikipedia article explains the concept of picnic. Today's readers will easily recognize a more comprehensive understanding of what the Petit Robert sums up as 'a meal in which each participant brings their dish, and pays for their share in the open, in the countryside, in the woods'.
Let's sum up the semantics of this concept as it is used today:
- A meal prepared in advance, brought from home
- Each participant contributes to it
- Outdoors, in nature
- A social event between close friends or relatives
It is very likely that many of our readers might get displeased or even upset by the fact that picnic in the late 1700s and early 1800s was not (exactly) what it is nowadays. Yet we have to stick to the primary sources we have based this study on.
In the fourth edition of its Dictionary (1764), the French Academy indeed brings the definition of what the Petit Robert considers as obsolete ('a meal in which each participant brings their dish and pays for their share'. However, it's still the same definition Jean-François Féraud uses in his Dictionaire critique de la langue française (1788) where he simply adds :
'lunch, dinner picnic. The Acad[emy] only refers to the first one, which is more certain. (…) This word has not been in use for a long time and it is even unknown in most provinces. Today, it is used everywhere'. 
Yet, 30 years later, Samuel Johnson offers in his Dictionary the following definition:
''Picknick : An assembly of young people of both sexes at a tavern where everyone pays his club.” Widegren, Swed. And Engl. Lexic. Stockholm, 1788. The English meaning seems to be a select feasting assembly, where each person makes some particular contribution towards the general entertainment."
The Swedish concept matches the French picnic but pertains to a specific social background, namely an assembly of young people of both sexes in a tavern. Nevertheless, in his 1818 definition, the English author introduces other semantic nuances to this concept in so far as, on one hand, he insists more on the closed character of this assembly and, on the other hand, on the more material aspect of the particular contribution (money, dishes) each participant is supposed to bring for the general entertainment of the assembly.
The meaning of the term most certainly knew an evolution between 1762 and 1818 that we are going to be able to partly retrace thanks to 18th century German sources. Indeed, the definition of 'Pickenick' proposed by Krünitz in his Encyclopedia presents semantic traits that refer both to the Swedish concept and to Johnson's definition. He writes:
"Originally, picnic refers to an assembly that is gathered for the pleasures and amusements of the society such as dance and where each attendee brings a dish. […] Presently, this term is also used to name the assemblies consisting of closed circles in which each member is successively the gracious host in charge of providing the food''. 
It is evident that in light of these definitions, the meaning of picnic is proving to be quite complex socio-culturally speaking. Nonetheless, before trying to decypher it in its entire scope, we will have to examine the descriptions of picnic offered by the Journal des Luxus und der Moden.
Indeed, the issues of June 1791 and March 1792 present reportages in which a 'journalist' attends Berlin's picnic circles. A direct witness, sometimes analytical, sometimes ironical, accounts for the social codes inherent to this type of gatherings. On April 28, 1791, she reports from Berlin the picnic practices:
"In the summer they have to dress up for calls and strolls while in the winter it is for balls and picnics or what they call here 'party'. On these occasions, they meet at 6 in the evening to play until 9:30 before eating until midnight. Yet, even though they tend to attire themselves in these circumstances, it is not necessarily fashion, clothes or luxury that prevail. Very often, it is rather wealth, vanity, indolence and appearance that prevail. If, for example, the gracious host is of a superior rank compared to his guest, the latter and his wife shall arrive dressed up carefully and beautifully. Of course, their outfit is sometimes outmoded and tasteless still well-dressed ». 
230 years later, the curious reader learns, thanks to the anonymous journalist, that a picnic should not necessarily take place outdoors. In the winter, it rather looked like a private ball at home whose activities such as games and supper followed a precise schedule. Through their clothing, the socio-economic divide between them was becoming more transparent. But another letter, dated October 28, 1791, proves to be richer in details about Berlin's picnics, centres of amusement for the young people:
"In fact, there is no essential difference between our balls and our picnics. The difference is that, when you are invited to a ball, you must face the challenge of having to deal with the host's multiple cold and stiff acquaintances he has gathered for the sake of respect, connection and vanity. By contrast, a picnic society consists of people who, most of the time, know each other.
Thus, the atmosphere is less cold though more monotonous. I am wondering whether it is out of politeness or mutual boredom that strangers are welcome. Yet, it is the latter that will ungratefully judge the dances performed during these picnics not only totally ordinary but also graceless. During balls and picnics, they play and dance, but in both circumstances the music is all but exceptional and you have to belong to the circle that sets the tone or renounce to the dance. For the elegants only invite to dance the ladies that belong to it."
Once again, the author emphasises the exclusiveness of picnics. Yet, this time, we learn that dance is an integral part of it.. But it is important to highlight that the reporter, by mentioning the contemptuous behaviour of dancers during these private circles, underlines all their social ambivalence. Indeed, on the one hand, strangers are admitted, but on the other hand, dancers pay no heed to the foreign ladies.
However, in her letter dated December 20, 1791, the traveler tells us that picnics do not only amount to private balls at home during the winter. She writes:
"In the summer, the main amusements consist notably of country house parties. These country holidays often take the shape of picnics but also of parties held for their friends in the country. The sole distinction between the two is that, in the former, several people contribute to a festive meal […] while in the latter, it is one person who takes care of it all alone. Dressed with care, one goes by fields, meadows, trees, bushes, brooks and hills. Once arrived, they settle in one of the chambers, and they converse until it is time to sit down at the table. Then, each gentleman presents his arm to one of the ladies to lead her to the dining room. There, he kisses her hand to sit next to another lady. Thereby, they spend many hours at the table, and since they are in the country, they walk in the garden several times before heading back home. "
However, only civil individuals belong to this type of country house parties. 
The explanations provided by our author about summer picnics show that, unlike winter picnics, games and dance aren't essential activities and that it is more relevant to speak of a trip to the countryside in which, contrary to winter picnics  each guest brings a dish for the common meal. In this regard, our author's report agrees with Krünitz's definition. Nevertheless, we will also notice that in this occasion, the experience of nature is made through the filter of civilisation: participants perceive it only from their coach and take a stroll not in the woods but in the garden of the house. What links summer picnics to winter picnics is the exclusive society whose members know eachother.
The travelling reporter concludes her account over the practices related to picnic by a very curious and precious detail:
"Of course, there are also the people without manners  who, to make the most of the morning, leave early either on foot or on a wain to visit the countryside. They spend the whole day outdoors laughing, dancing, singing and running after one another. They fear neither the cool air of the morning nor the dew on the sward and the flowers. Neither the heat of the midday sun nor the fresh and humid evening after the storm frighten them. They bring their lunch to the nearest forest or to a place in the shade of the tree etc. All that is certainly natural but far from good manners. ."
You will have noticed that it is precisely this form of sociability in open country that is the nearest equivalent to today's acceptation of 'picnic' while, according to the author, it is the very opposite of the definition of picnic as it was practiced by the polite society of that time..
Therefore, the journalist does not call it this way. However, since she puts it in the immediate context of practices related to ''bon ton'' (i.e. good manners) we should assume that this form of lunch in the open corresponded to a form of country party already in vogue among the little people. Nevertheless, it is only during the second half of the 19th century that this type of lunch will be exclusively associated with the word 'picnic'.
After all these considerations, if we analyse the semantism of picnic taking into account 9 factors between 1762 to 1818 we can retrace its evolution as following :
Well, what conclusions can we draw about picnics from our reading of German sources?
At the turn of the 19th century, the term refers to:
a) A circle of young people of the high society personally acquainted and that occasionally allow themselves to invite strangers.
b) There are summer and winter picnics. In the summer, picnics consist in an excursion in the countryside which is more precisely a stay at the estate of one of the circle members. During this visit, participants have a common meal inside the house to which each one contributes by a meal they have brought along. In the winter, picnics take the shape of a private ball held at home that begins in the late afternoon by games and that ends with a supper lasting late into the night.
Translation by Fabrice Robardey
Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise, quatriéme édition, Brunet, Paris, 1762.
BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Junius 1791, Weimar.
BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, März 1792, Weimar.
CAMPE, Joachim Heinrich, Väterlicher Rath für meine Tochter. Ein Gegenstück zum Theophron, Der erwachsenen weiblichen Jugend gewidmet, Frankfurt und Leipzig, 1790.
ERKER, Brigitte, Justus Möser in Pyrmont 1746-1793, Bad Pyrmont Museumsverein, 1991.
FÉRAUD, Jean-François, Dictionaire critique de la langue française, Mossy, Marseille, 1787-1788.
FLÖRIKE, Heinrich Gustav, Krünitz, Oekonomisch-technologische Encyklopädie, oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft und der Kunstgeschichte, Joachim Pauli, Berlin, 1810.
GIEL, Volker, OELLERS, Norbert, J.W. Goethe. Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe Juni 1788 – Ende 1790. Band 81/ Text, Klassik Stiftung Weimar, De Gruyter, 2017.
SCHMIEDER, Benjamin Friedrich, Das Mädchen von Andros! Ein Lustpiel von Terenz, Hendel, Halle, 1790.
STEINMETZ, Johann Adam, Praktische Lebensbeschreibung verstorbner und noch lebender Geistlichen, für Leser, die durch ihrer Mitmenschen Beyspiele lernen wollen, Stendal, Franzen und Grosse, 1787.
KAUFMANN, Gerhard, Louis C. Jacob: restaurant und hotel an der Elbchaussee, Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, 1995.
JOHNSON, Samuel, A dictionary of the English language, Vol. IV, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London, 1818.
 Elements confirmed by the author of this article.
 Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise, quatriéme édition, Brunet, Paris, 1762.
 FÉRAUD, Jean-François, Dictionaire critique de la langue française, Mossy, Marseille, 1787 – 1788.
 JOHNSON, Samuel, A dictionary of the English language Vol. IV, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London, 1818.
 Flörke, Heinrich Gustav, Krünitz, Oekonomisch-technologische Encyklopädie, oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft und der Kunstgeschichte, Joachim Pauli, Berlin, 1810.
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Junius 1791. Weimar
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, März 1792, Weimar.
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Junius 1791, pp. 332 – 333.
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, März 1792, p. 111.
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, März, 1792, p. 112.
 A letter written by Caroline Herder to her husband dated 14 november 1788 confirms that this type of dancing picnics were organised in the winter. Goethe himself took part to one of them. See: GIEL, Volker, OELLERS, Norbert, J.W. Goethe. Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe Juni 1788 – Ende 1790. Band 81/ Text, Klassik Stiftung Weimar, De Gruyter, 2017, 58.17-17.
 BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin, Journal des Luxus und der Moden, März 1792, p. 117 – 118.
 in any case, the author doesn't mention that, in the case of winter picnics, guests would bring dishes.
 The fact you would quite evidently bring a homemade dish when taking part in a picnic also confirms the reading of CAMPE, Joachim Heinrich, Väterlicher Rath für meine Tochter. Ein Gegenstück zum Theophron, Der erwachsenen weiblichen Jugend gewidmet, Frankfurt und Leipzig, 1790, p. 484.
 This is underlined by the author of this article.
 Ibid., p. 118.
 Contemporaries name this type of lunch in the open ''promenade'', explicitely in opposition to the picnic of the upper-class which is confirmed by the reading of STEINMETZ, Johann Adam, Praktische Lebensbeschreibung verstorbner und noch lebender Geistlichen, für Leser, die durch ihrer Mitmenschen Beyspiele lernen wollen, Stendal, Franzen und Grosse, 1787, p. 280 – 281.
 Voir KAUFMANN, Gerhard, Louis C. Jacob: Restaurant und Hotel an der Elbchaussee, Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, 1995, p. 27 et ERKER, Brigitte, Justus Möser in Pyrmont 1746-1793, Bad Pyrmont Museumsverein, 1991, p. 16.