- Historic Sites
Picnics Long Ago
If it rained, the painters failed to record it
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Food tastes better outdoors, and it always has. Nowadays this rule, which every child learns early in life, can be seen in operation at tailgate parties at football games or wherever spectator sports are in season. You can see it under more elegant circumstances throughout American history, beginning with the Pilgrims’ first alfresco party for the Indians. It reached some sort of apogee in the nineteenth century, in the period brought back to us so hauntingly in the writings of Washington Irving and on the canvases of the painters of the Hudson River school.
The picnickers of the last century were overdressed by our standards, but the spirit of conviviality was there, the landscape was unscarred by civilization, the breezes were sweet smelling, and the vistas were infinitely clear. Wicker baskets slung over their arms, they would search for a pleasant clearing to feast on cold meats, hard-boiled eggs, jars of preserves, wine, bread, fruit. Afterward someone might strum a guitar or put a bow to a violin, young couples would wander away for privacy, and children would rollick about. As Irving wrote to his sister in 1840: We have picnic parties…sometimes in some inland valley or piece of wood, sometimes on the banks of the Hudson, where some repair by land, and others by water. You would he delighted with these picturesque assemblages, on some wild woodland point jutting into the Tappan Sea, with gay groups on the grass under the trees; carriages glistening through the woods; a yacht with flapping sails and fluttering streamers anchored about half a mile from shore, and rowboats plying to and from it, filled with lady passengers.…
Charles Dickens wrote with the same spirit when, on his first visit to the United States in 1842, he joined a party travelling from St. Louis to see the Looking Glass Prairie, on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, in Illinois. Named apparently for the way its tall, shimmering grasses reflected the sun and the sky, Looking Glass Prairie was a hard, nearly thirty-mile trip from St. Louis. As the Englishman wrote in his American Notes: We encamped near a solitary log-house, for the sake of its water, and dined upon the plain. The baskets contained roast fowls, buffalo’s tongue (an exquisite dainty, by-the-way), ham, bread, cheese, and butter; biscuits, champagne, sherry; lemons and sugar for punch; and abundance of rough ice. The meal was delicious, and the entertainers were the soul of kindness and good humour. I have often recalled that cheerful party to my pleasant recollection since, and shall not easily forget, in junketings nearer home with friends of older date, my boon companions on the Prairie.
We know that other writers on picnics found the same camaraderie that trying and Dickens did. Thorcau joined Emerson on such outings from Concord, Massachusetts, and Hawthorne and Melville began their long friendship) on a picnic-expedition in the Berkshires in 1850. Of course, nature being untrustworthy, there were times when rain interrupted the rites. Hawthorne and Melville, for example, were forced to seek cover from a thundershower on their climb to the top of Monument Mountain. And a young friend of the Irving family, Angelica Hamilton of Nevis (now Irvington), New York, recorded a similar incident in 1843 in a letter to her brother Alexander, grandson of our first Secretary of the Treasury. Young Alexander was then serving with Irving at the American Legation in Madrid. The letter, now at Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Tarrytown, New York, reads in part: Mary [another sister] has told you of our visit to Sandy Hook, since then one Picnic has come off in a most pelting rain, highly ludicrous. We had appointed the day some time before, invited the Minturns, prepared the baskets, & accordingly though the clouds looked lowering set sail without any wind & drifted up to silver brook. When there we thought it was best to try for the inmates of the cottage, so Bow was deputed a committee of sixteen & succeeded in bringing off two Miss Irvings & Mrs. Romeyn with a small but choice addition to the repast, the best loaf of bread in the world; we then crossed over [the Hudson] to try & get the Hoffmans…but in vain. By this time the cooks commenced opperations, Pa & Minturn. We had a capital dinner & a great deal of fun when in the midst of all; down came the rain in torrents. The cabin became warm, the sky light had to be taken off to admit the air, & the water of course followed. We laughed a great deal notwithstanding, for the angelic Mrs. Minturn is very funny on such occasions, & he is truly a good fellow & full of interest & information upon every thing that is going on, so it ended in our all coming ashore at the cottage & Pa’s sending the carriage down for us; their going home immediately, & the Irvings passing the night with Mrs. Minturn.
Artists like those represented on these pages captured these moments of genteel good fellowship on canvas, alfording us a glimpse of our forefathers at their informal best, in settings that make us catch our breath for their beauty. We must travel too tar nowadays to find a spot that is secluded or a view that is uninterrupted. The paintings here serve as a pleasant reminder of what once was.