Our Ancestors’ Summer Picnics & Recipes

Introduction: In this blog article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn about picnics from an earlier day and what they can tell us about our ancestors’ lives. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. The weather is starting to warm up which means it’s a great time to take your meal outdoors. Picnics are a summertime tradition that features favorite foods like sandwiches or fried chicken and potato salad. Picnics can happen almost everywhere including a park, beach, or the mountains.

Photo: picnic in a wooded area, by Harry Walker, 1900-1949
Photo: picnic in a wooded area, by Harry Walker, 1900-1949. Credit: University of Houston Digital Library; Wikimedia Commons.

I definitely don’t want to infer that you are limited to the outdoors when hosting a picnic; some of my favorite picnics have been held in my front room, on the floor, watching a movie with the kids.

One of the best resources for genealogists is a collection of online newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Government records can provide the vital statistics about our ancestors, but to get to know them as individuals, and the lives they led, we need their stories – and these can be found in old newspapers. Researching picnics in old newspapers opens up a window into our ancestors’ lives – where they held their picnics, what food they ate, even the recipes they used.

There’s no doubt that recipes for picnic fare are a popular topic for newspaper food columns. When I searched on the words “picnic” and “recipe” in GenealogyBank’s newspapers I received over 11,800 hits! Narrowing down those hits to the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in recipes I think many of us would like to try today.

Picnics of Yesteryear

A picnic, is a picnic, is a picnic, right? You pack the food, you jump into the car, and you drive to where you want to eat. But aside from recipes, old newspapers provide some social history context, including what picnics were like before – and during the early days of – automobiles. For example, this 1922 full-page newspaper article of picnic recipes starts out by stating:

Thanks to the automobile, it is not often necessary nowadays to limit the picnic lunch to such things as can be carried conveniently. One young mother of several small children packs the fireless cooker filled with their midday dinner in course of preparation and then motors her brood unconcernedly off to the woods or the beaches, confident that a picnic will not mean to them an inadequate and inappropriate meal. Ice cream freezers and vacuum bottles and big hampers are well-known occupants of most automobiles. And although the sandwich holds its place along with deviled eggs and patty cakes as a picnic necessity, still the planning of a picnic is not very difficult under automobile conditions.

An article about picnics, with recipes, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11

In this article you can find recipes and menus for those without an automobile, the lack of which limits what can be easily carried over a distance. I must admit I would love to have a picnic using most of these recipes. The first menu mentioned consists of chicken sandwiches, bacon sandwiches, tomatoes stuffed with potato salad, oranges and peaches, chocolate peppermints, and hot tea. The second menu includes cold beef or veal loaf, tomato sandwiches, peaches, cookies, lemonade, and milk chocolate. (I will reprint some of these recipes at the end of this blog article.)

Feeling Tired and Down? Pack a Picnic!

There’s no doubt that getting out of the house and doing something different can be a nice way to recharge your batteries. This 1928 newspaper article suggests that:

A picnic is as good a tonic as there is. It takes the housewife away from the heated treadmill or the three-meals-a-day routine. It provides an outlet for the exuberance of the children. Last, but not least, provided that he finds the picnic basket productive of plenty of palatable food, it tones up the tired business man as the formality of the home-served dinner cannot do.

An article about picnics, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 June 1928
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 June 1928, page 28

Suggested recipes for this joyful picnic event? Recipes include Tomatoes and Bacon, which is basically a fried tomato dish, and then Cold Ham Pie which combines ham and hard-boiled eggs in a pie crust. (And yes, I will reprint some of these recipes at the end of this blog article as well.)

Your Picnic Ideas

My favorite food columns are the ones where readers submit ideas. These can be questions posed to experts or a platform for sharing favorite recipes.

An article about a picnic menu contest, Oregonian newspaper article 30 July 1930
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 30 July 1930, page 10

This 1930 newspaper contest for picnic menu ideas was judged by the following criteria:

Will it be appetizing? Is it suitable for packing and carrying? Is it wholesome for children as well as permissible for adults? Is it reasonable in expense? Can it be prepared in about as much time as the ordinary family dinner?

Prize winners received $1.

Reader J. B. L. remarked that:

…we simply pack up our Sunday dinner and take it with us. The salad-sandwich type of lunch no longer appeals to us and we find that digestions and tempers suffer less when at least one hot dish is included in the menu.

Her picnic menu included creamed chicken in casserole and green peas – fresh and hot, carrot and pineapple salad, picnic buns, fresh raspberry tarts with cream, and coffee. I like reader Mrs. E. F.’s idea to give each person their own individual box with potato salad, a sandwich, pickles, a slice of cake, and “a chocolate bar tucked in to add joy, a paper napkin and folding drinking cup.”

Now of course not all late 19th– and early 20th-century newspaper reader ideas would appeal to today’s picnic goer. In this same article, Mrs. C. H. C. in LaGrande, Oregon, says her simple picnic basket features jellied chicken or veal.

Now It’s Your Turn

After reading newspaper articles about picnics, I’m ready to head to the beach. What’s your favorite picnic menu? Please share your recipes below in the comments section.

Picnic Recipes

As promised, here are some of the picnic recipes I found in old newspapers while researching this blog article.

A fried chicken recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A beef loaf recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A veal cake recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A recipe for tomatoes and bacon, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 June 1928
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 June 1928, page 28
A recipe for a nut cheese salad, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 June 1928
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 June 1928, page 28
A recipe for a cold ham pie, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 June 1928
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 June 1928, page 28
A recipe for picnic punch, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 June 1928
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 June 1928, page 28
A molasses cookies recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A sour cream patty cakes recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A jelly roll recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A currant cake recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A cream cookies recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11
A cocoa marble cake recipe, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 August 1922
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 August 1922, page 11

Related Food & Recipe Articles:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.