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A Tisket, a Tasket, Here Comes a Picnic Basket!

By Ellen Gilbert

Photography Collections of the Historical Society of Princeton

Picnics have been around for a long time. The word “picnic” is probably of French origin; the French piquer literally means to pierce with the tip of a sword. No less an authority than the Larousse Gastronomique reports that the word pique-nique, referring to a repas en pleine air, was accepted by the Academy Française in 1740 and “thereafter became a universally accepted word in many languages.”


Photographs held by the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) document picnics in Princeton during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These are never candid shots. Large and small groups of men wearing jackets and jaunty hats, and women in long skirts have taken a moment away from their fishing, rowing, sack races, and culinary pleasures to mark what was, presumably,a pretty special day.

Although several of the men and boys have given up their jackets and can be seen in shirt sleeves and suspenders at a gathering in Rocky Hill, circa 1906, the two seated rows are clearly posed. It must have taken quite a lot of time—and no small amount of ingenuity—to place the 100 or more people who attended the Stony Brook Hunt Club Picnic at Tusculum on September 25, 1937. We are not told what prey was hunted, but dogs are on the scene.

Picnics appear to have been a favorite activity of local firefighters in the early part of the last century. Mercer Engine Company No. 3 is particularly well represented, with several photos, in which some of the men are identified by name, dating back to 1902. At this time, Princeton had two other fire companies: The Princeton Hook and Ladder Fire Company, founded in 1788, and Princeton Engine Company No. 1, founded in 1794. A relative newcomer, Company No. 3 was founded in 1847.

A historical online account notes that by the mid-1880s, Princeton’s fire companies were well established social institutions, as each company began to develop its own distinct character. “Reinforced through sporting and fire tactic competitions, the companies began to develop rivalries that occasionally carried over into their firefighting,” we are told. Picnics and dances gradually became “elaborate banquets and balls,” and their annual shows were reported to be the social event of the season for many.


A particularly photogenic group of men and women gathered in the summer or fall of 1911 for a hay ride and picnic at Roaring Rocks, a boulder field in the Hillsborough Township portion of the Sourland Mountains. The presence of blankets and instruments may account for the uncharacteristically relaxed image of a group of local men in an undated photo. In another photo, a seated couple appear unperturbed by the passing team of “mules or horses” at the D & R Canal.

Another large group shot depicts “Miss Louise C. Wright” and her students from the Mt. Lucas School, which was built in 1874. The presence of croquet mallets and baseball bats in this photo suggest some of the activities of the day, as well as the use of tablecloths at meal time.

In spite of being described as a “large, modern schoolhouse,” one former student at the Mt. Lucas School later reported that it “was cold as the devil when you went in the morning because the fire was banked at night and we had to start over again.” The one-room school closed 1918 with the opening of the Township Consolidated School on Witherspoon Street.


Thanks to HSP’s subject headings, we know that “cake” was definitely among the victuals enjoyed at the Mt. Lucas School picnic. “What Usually Happened on the Old-Fashioned Picnic,” a piece that appeared in the New York Times in May of 1912, helps us surmise what else might have been eaten at those picnics, and by whom it was prepared.

“Eatables were provided by the feminine portion of the party,” reports the author. “A few cold fried chickens, some peanut butter sandwiches, a big paper sack full of Saratoga chips, some potato salad in a fruit jar, two or three kinds of jelly and bread and butter, a couple of chocolate cakes and a coconut cake and a freeze of strawberry ice cream and a few accessories were practically all we expected at a picnic dinner in those days,” he modestly adds.

In her book Science in the Kitchen (“A Scientific Treatise on Food Substances and their Dietetic Properties”) published in the U.S. and England in 1892, the aptly named Ella Eaton Kellogg begins by providing a truly discouraging account of picnics. Identifying them as an “occasion for a big dinner composed of sweets and dainties, wines, ices and other delectable delicacies” she regretfully notes “the surfeiting and excess” to which these culinary debauches invariably lead. Adding to the bleakness of the project is the “extra and wearisome labor” involved in preparations for an event that is healthful only by reputation. “Where everything is made subservient to appetite,” she observes, a picnic is actually “one of the most unhygienic things imaginable.” Readers need not despair, however. Among the book’s “thousand palatable, choice, and wholesome recipes” are instructions for preparing for healthy options like “fig wafers,” and directives about transporting cooked soup, grains, or macaroni” in “sealed fruit cans” that can be reheated on the camp grounds.


Advertisements in the digital version of the first ten years of Town Topics give us some sense of how mid-twentieth century Princeton area residents outfitted themselves and equipped their picnics. In July 1953, under the rubric “Hot Weather Needs,” Urken Supply Co. listed a 25-foot garden hose ($1.98); children’s wading pools ($3.98 and up); picnic jugs ($1.79 and up); and “Scotch coolers” ($4.98 and up). Mrs. Kellogg would no doubt have approved of the “fly traps” that were also available ($1.98).

Edible provisions for that 1950s picnic might have come from The Food Mart of Princeton (20 Witherspoon Street), where a 25-pound basket of new potatoes would set you back 79 cents; seedless grapes cost 23 cents a pound; and smoked pork butt (“a real summer treat”) could be had for 78 cents a pound. Faithful pooches not allowed to partake of people food could be fed from an 8 cent can of “Cap’n” dog food.

What to wear to a picnic in the summer of 1953? Male picnickers may have been wearing a nylon, seersucker suit purchased at Elise Goupil (217 Nassau Street), and for the ladies, there were Fruit of the Loom dresses in full and half sizes at S. B. Harris Department Store (32-34 Witherspoon Street).

The lure of picnics has never abated. Area preservationists were hailed in 1973 when a 60-mile long tract along The Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal was declared a state park, where people could “boat, jog, bike, fish, and picnic.” And, when HSP reopened the Updike Farmstead on Quaker Road a few years ago, Executive Director Erin Dougherty hoped that people would “come out, have a picnic, sit, and watch the sunset.”

More recent picnics meals have probably included sliders and corn salsa, washed down by Sangria. Tee-shirts and flip-flops would be the sartorial order of the day, and lots of sun screen would be applied to big and little arms and legs.

Whether it was 1912, 1953, or 2014, though, we can be pretty sure that a delightful time was had by all.

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