Inside the Collection

History Week: Picnics

The history of picnics goes back to medieval times in England and Europe when elaborate outdoor feasts were enjoyed by the wealthy. Medieval hunting feasts and Renaissance era country banquets were the forerunners of the casual outdoor picnics we enjoy today. These feasts would traditionally serve cold meats like hams, baked meats and pastries. Now accessible to most people, the contemporary picnic can contains an extraordinary diversity of food from tabouli and hummus to spring rolls, pies and prawns.

Black and white photo of a group of adults on a picnic in 1895
2008/165/1-70 Glass plate negative (1 of 193), picnic at Freshwater photographer possibly Arthur Phillips, Australia, 1895
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This is one of the Museum’s earliest images of a picnic, it’s from a glass plate negative depicting a picnic scene at Freshwater, with young men and women and a small child. Ida Phillips, the photographer’s sister, is at the far right and the man in front of her holding her hand, is probably Joe Hindwood, her husband. (Married 1900). The woman second from left is holding a cigarette. Cricket stumps and bat are visible on one side, and inscribed on a billy in the foreground is the text ‘Freshwater 1895 AP’ To the right of the billy is an early picnic hamper, similar to the one in the Museum’s collection.

1910-1930 Picnic hamper
85/2502 Picnic hamper, motoring, leather case / wicker / bone / glass / paper/ porcelain, used by Major A U John, maker unknown, England, 1910-1930 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The image below depicts a stylish if uncomfortable looking picnic with its participants wearing their best hats and using porcelain tea cups. I noticed the children and adults appear to be sitting directly on the ground in the bush.

Group of people picnic among the trees in the 1890s
1890s picnic in the trees, photographer unknown

Devices to aid the picnicker, often adaptations of household items like baskets, cups and plates were offered for sale in the ‘Store Catalogues’ of the late 1800s and early 1900s, like those of Anthony Hordens and later David Jones.

The picnic case shown below is a Victorian era case around the mid to late 1800s made out of wicker work.

A7665 Picnic basket. Wicker work. Fitted with tins, china & utensils. Victorian. (LC).
A7665 Picnic basket. Wicker work. Fitted with tins, china & utensils. Victorian. (LC).

The popularity of picnics in the 20th century ran parallel with the rise of access to transport systems, from rail to bike and most significantly the motor car. As well as family and bush walking picnics there were company picnic days like ones organised by Wunderlich Limited from the early 1900s.

Black and white photograph taken large group of 100 people in the early 1900's
A7437-28 Photographs, Photographic prints, Wunderlich Limited, Redfern, New South Wales, Australia, c 1899 – 1976 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The rise of the picnic basket or case reflects Australians’ increased leisure time and, the desire to bring domestic comforts into weekend or holiday pursuits like picnics, barbecues, camping and caravanning.

The 1950s picnic set pictured below has various components that reflect the changes in and development of the then ‘new plastics’ now so much part of everything we buy. The suitcase fabric is made from Rexine, a polyvinyl upholstery cloth, made by Armonde Ltd, Leather Cloth and ICI in the late 1940s and represented in the Museum’s important plastics collection. The plastic used in the cups and saucers is also of particular interest, being Bandalasta, the name given to a series of early plastic wares made from a synthetic resin by British chemists in 1920s. The Trademarked Thermos contained in this set is also clad in Bandalasta.

Picnic case and contents from the 1950's
2010/87 Picnic case and contents, Rexine cloth / metal / plastic/ glass, made by Brexton, England, 1950s, used Australia, 1950-1989 Collection : Powerhouse Museum

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