Picnics and Country Homes: A Socially Acceptable Return to Our Primitive Nature

by Claire Valenty on September 12, 2011

in Etiquette From The Past

In 1895 summertime was more than just a reprieve from cold weather or demanding schedules. When the hot days of June, July, and August arrived, polite society allowed itself to relax and ‘return to nature’. Air conditioning had not yet been invented and city life could become unbearable when the mercury rose past 80F, so all classes of good people sought respite from the heat. Those who could afford it, set off to country homes or cottages by the beach. Picnics often replaced formal meals, and sitting on the ground was as acceptable as dining on fine linen.

The August 17, 1895 first column story of Harper’s Bazar explored “The Philosophy of the Picnic.” The editors acknowledge that it is not the food that draws countless souls out to the wilds, but the need to allow our instinctual nature to take over.

The need to picnic is simply a “craving for out-door life, a hereditary tendency, a survival of the ancestral quality that probably had the animal instinct for home and loved it as in the main we love our own, and if it did not love it, knew of no other, and so accepted it as a natural affair. Perhaps this is still more probable, because on the picnic more than elsewhere, we are apt to return in our manners, in some measure, to the savagery of our earlier people.”

The hot weather combined with the need to express our ancient desires, necessitated rustic activities such as picnics, walks in the woods, and relocating to pastoral and sometimes crude country dwellings. Indeed the rules of summertime etiquette in 1895 were relaxed. Behavior which would be totally unacceptable in the winter months, were allowed without so much as a pardon.

“We sit upon the ground there, we lie upon it; there is nothing else to sit on; we do not scruple to eat pie with our fingers; water au naturel in the absence of ice is not undrinkable; crawling and creeping things about us are matters of no concern, sometimes we even dispense with a chaperon.”

Of course the niceties of a cultured life were not forbidden when one ventured into the country. Iced drinks, pate de foie, aspic jelly, and champagne could be served at a picnic. Butlers and maids could accompany the family to their summer confines, yet individuals could still ‘return to nature’ and relax their city manners. When the humidity rose, it was socially acceptable for both ladies and gentlemen to perspire. (However ladies should never sweat.)

Indeed, every homemaker was advised to always be prepared in the summer for a picnic, for one may never know when an outdoor outing may be suddenly announced.

In a convenient corner of the housekeeper’s closet keep a shelf for empty paper boxes, a ball of strong cord, and a drawer where brown paper bags, wrapping paper, wooden plates and Japanese paper napkins may always be found.

In 2011 modern conveniences make it easy to stay cool even in the hottest climates, but we still seek the comforts of the woods and the beach. Maybe the editors of Harper’s Bazar were on to something. Picnics and summer vacations in the woods allow us to express our inner cave person in a socially acceptable way.

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