The Surprising History of the Picnic

 Have lunch, will travel

People living in the northern half of the planet are currently celebrating summer, gathering outdoors for a meal. With so many kinds of pre-packaged foods and drinks, the task of packing up a picnic basket or hamper is no longer necessary. Maybe this is too bad since some of the most beautiful and ingeniously designed containers were made specifically for picnics.

Chinese paintings dating back over 1,000 years depict a famous picnic subject, The 7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove.

Picture of Learned Men (detail), handscroll, attributed to Sun Wei, China, ca. 900 CE (Shanghai Museum)

In this section of the 10th-century silk handscroll painting, a pair of scholars relax on colorful cushions and rugs as they sip cups of wine offered by a servant. A finely detailed wine basin with a ladle rests between them.

Stemmed wine cup with floral scrolls, China, late 7th-early 8th century (Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Wine cups and bowls, like the ones shown in the painting, were typically made of cast bronze, coated in silver or gold, and decorated with delicate designs. No plastic cups for the well-off!

Expensive metalware became less fashionable and affordable in later periods. Well-designed, portable food and drink containers became increasingly popular, especially among stylish city dwellers in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The designer of this rare 400 year-old picnic set seems to have thought of everything.

Bamboo picnic set, China, 17th century, Denver Art Museum. Gift of Adele Lutz and David Byrne

It contains a complete set of lacquerware serving pieces: four including bowls, dishes, cups and even a tall gourd-shaped carafe, nested, round storage containers. Each piece is constructed from a thin, flexible wooden core, coated in several layers of waterproof lacquer and finally sheathed in elegant, but extremely sturdy bamboo weaving.

Bamboo picnic set (detail of food containers) China, 17th century set, Denver Art Museum. Gift of Adele Lutz and David Byrne

The insulating outer layer of bamboo helps maintain the temperature of the contents.

Chinese lacquerware traveled from China to Japan, where it became a hugely popular artform that was quickly adapted for fully functional picnic boxes. In this detail from the large hanging scroll called A Picnic Party, note the red and black lacquered box containing a white sake bottle. The left side of the box is tiered for storing the food trays seen in front of the men and women.

A picnic party: eight people seated under blossoming trees Japan, early 17th century (Freer and Sackler Galleries)

This exquisite Portable Luncheon Cabinet was ingeniously fitted with tiered trays, drawers and other compartments for carrying food, dishes, cups and a space for securing a teapot.

Portable Luncheon Cabinet, Edo period, early 18th century (Osaka Museum)

As the wealth and leisure of Tokyo and Kyoto’s residents grew, costly picnic boxes were luxurious wedding gifts. This type of design carried forward for three centuries as seen in this picnic set from the Edo period (1603-1868).

Picnic Set, Japan, 1845-60s (Art Gallery of South Australia)

Compared to the more rustic European and North American style picnic baskets popular in the 19th and early 20th century, the Japanese boxes seem almost too beautiful to use.

Picnic basket [Panier a pique-nique], ca.1915 - 1940, Canadian, McCord Museum
Words by Lauren Nemroff
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