For most picnickers in today’s world, these outings call for paper plates, paper cups, plastic bottles, coolers, plenty of ice, and as many convenience foods as possible. The 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 movable feast, and was a heavy load for family and servants to carry.
In an era before plastic bottles and paper plates, picnic accoutrements were the “real thing:" china 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 number of utensils and victuals must have been backbreaking.
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 ceremonies, 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. 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.
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.”
Of course, small groups of picnickers didn’t necessarily need to travel long distances to enjoy an al fresco 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.
You have to wonder what they would think about the drive-through at today's fast food places!