From campground to crab shack to suburban backyard, the picnic table is so ubiquitous that it is nearly invisible as a designed object. Yet this ingenious form — a structurally bolted frame that unites bench seats and table into a sturdy package — has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s. Having transcended the picnic, it is now the ideal setting for any outdoor event that compels us to face one another squarely across a shared surface.
Even a conversation between the former President and Secretary of State is transformed. There is something intensely familiar about this massive table on the White House grounds; though it is off-limits to the public, we can imagine sitting there ourselves. The table seems to humanize its powerful occupants, even as it curiously diminishes them with its over-sized components. 1
These qualities of familiarity and abundance have made the picnic table an American icon. On the website of The Home Depot, buyers can choose from among 102 models, priced between $109 and $2,260. 2 That seems an impossible variety, and we should be grateful that we typically don’t make the purchasing decisions. For most of the past hundred years, we have occupied picnic tables chosen by others, by the operators of car washes and rest stops and fairgrounds, and it is never uncomfortable.
From the Blanket to the Grove
Despite its ubiquity, and despite its bulk and permanence, the picnic table has never managed to supersede its namesake, the Victorian ideal of a daytime meal “eaten on a blanket on a fine patch of grass.” 3 Thomas Cole’s 1846 painting A Pic-Nic Party captures the spirit of the event: “a day in nature for feasting, amusements, privacy amid masses, and freedom.” 4
Spontaneously laying down the blanket is the first act of claiming the picnic site. Before any of the supplies are unpacked or the occupants seated, we declare: this is the spot. The gesture is decisive but also temporary; when the meal is over, the blanket can be removed by a single pair of hands, shaken free of crumbs, and returned to the provisions basket — one last ritual before the party ends. In Cole’s painting, the picnickers’ imaginations may be colored by a Romantic conception of nature, but this is no wilderness: note the tree stump in the foreground.
The blanket also serves a utilitarian role, mediating revelers’ contact with nature. Mary Ellen Hern reports that 19th-century etiquette manuals advised picnickers to bring “canvas camp chairs, mats and pieces of carpet … to give people easy seats … [and to] prevent the damp striking through thin dresses.” 5 Biologist Deborah M. Gordon is more direct: “the observation that where there is a picnic there will be ants rests on the notion that there is an ant lurking everywhere, all the time, ready to mobilize its nest mates when a picnic appears.” 6
In its attempt to recreate the indoor dining table, the picnic blanket represents a domestication of the ground surface. It functions as a tablecloth, defining an area where the meal can be properly laid out and consumed. In the opening sequence of Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977), we meet a young couple picnicking on a near perfect square of carefully arranged blankets whose colorful textures and rectilinear edges contrast sharply with the grass. The overhead shot is almost clinical: the emphasis here is not on the beauty of the surroundings, as in Cole’s painting, but rather on the set-up itself. The blanket seems to hover slightly over the ground, and we, too, hover above the meticulous composition. Then the camera moves higher, and the picnic shrinks rapidly, until we see the edges of the park and other landmarks along the Chicago lakeshore.
If we accept the Victorian premise of moving a meal from the dining room to the outdoors, then we must ask, Why not move the entire food-consumption apparatus — the tablecloth, utensils, dishware, tables, and chairs — along with the food itself? The impractical question is answered by Jerome B. Thompson’s Picnick at Camden, Maine (1855), which depicts conventional furniture that has been moved outdoors. While this arrangement no doubt increased the comfort of participants, it meant the picnic needed to be located near the home. In the late 19th and early 20th century, enterprising recreationalists (often gearheads) began experimenting with ways of making the table as portable as the provisions basket and the blanket.
As outdoor dining became more popular in the late 19th century, high demand led to the creation of designated “picnic groves” in urban areas — the very place that early picnic enthusiasts had sought to escape. Furnished with rudimentary tables and benches like those in Chicago’s South Park (1871), the picnic grove was “a tidied up natural landscape … neither a constructed landscape like an urban park nor a developed pleasure ground, although some of these groves had passive structures like pavilions and hearths.” 7 The tables were made from rough-hewn boards that could withstand heavy use, and they were fixed in place, their posts embedded deep in the ground. In lieu of individual chairs, they had long benches without backs. A single table could be used by several groups over the course of a day, and some picnic groves accommodated several parties simultaneously with dense arrangements of tables and benches. The picnic table had by now become less an accessory than a destination. Eventually, this model was emulated outside the city, in tourist destinations like the Mohonk Mountain house on Lake Mohonk, near Poughkeepsie, New York, and in the national parks.
From the Mountains to the Auto Camp
Still, the picnic was always conceived as a one-day affair. 8 More serious outdoor enthusiasts were drawn to the wilds far beyond the city, where they camped for weeks at a time and made their own rustic tables. The Adirondacks experienced its first tourist craze in 1868, after the Reverend H.H. Murray published Adventures in the Wilderness. An 1886 photograph from Camp Colden, near Lake Placid, shows a party of men seated at a table framed by posts planted in the ground. Warren Miller observed, in Camp Craft: Modern Practice and Equipment (1915), that “the necessity of an eating table of some sort has been given much study by veteran outfitters, so important it is in the long run. For the permanent camp the log and plank tables … solve the problem amply and, with a log bench by each side, make for comfortable, happy meals.” 9 Similarly, Hyatt Verrill opined that such tables could be made “very easily by driving forked sticks into the earth and then lashing a rectangular frame to them and which should then be covered by birch and bark. … In place of the bark, rods or withes may be lashed close together, or cords may be stretched across the top and wattled with willow, withes or other materials. Chairs or benches may be constructed in the same manner.” 10 Made from unmilled lumber harvested near the campsite — the same wood used to construct shelters and keep the fire going — these tables were designed for intensive use, presumably for the duration of the party’s stay in the wilderness. On the last day, they could break camp (literally) and throw the table straight into the fire, leaving few traces.
Two key features distinguish the modern picnic table from the furniture found in picnic groves and rustic camps at the turn of the 20th century: the combination of seats and tabletop into a single unit, and the design’s near-unshakable stability. These improvements were anticipated by C.H. Nielsen, who in 1904 patented a “table capable of being cheaply made, which is portable and equipped with seats, preferably on both sides … particularly designed and adapted for use at picnics and other gatherings of a similar character where temporary use only is required.” 11 One of his drawings showed a collapsed table nearly as flat as its distant counterpart, the 19th century picnic blanket.
In hindsight, the portability of Nielsen’s table was less significant than its innovative frame. He borrowed the X-shaped leg from another icon of American furniture design, the 18th-century sawbuck table, and added integrated seating. The bench seats allowed the possibility of a weight imbalance that would destabilize the table, as shown in a hilarious illustration from The Family Flivvers to Frisco (1928). To address this hazard, Nielsen supported the ends of each bench with vertical posts to create eight points of contact with the ground.
This awkward design feature could be seen in tables produced throughout the 1920s, including those at Overland Park, the huge municipal automobile campground in Denver. Overland’s 600 campsites were laid out on individual plots — a novelty in those days — and each site was marked by a sturdy table whose long benches were supported by vertical posts and diagonal braces.
The final refinement of the modern picnic table was the elimination of the redundant structural supports. In 1918, Harold R. Basford patented the first drawing of the picnic table as we know it today. 12 Basford’s table, like Nielsen’s, was collapsible, so that tourist campers roaming the countryside in a new age of mobility could pack the table along with their tents, bedding, and cook stoves. As leisure activities were further commercialized, the Coleman Company defined a new market for portable recreational gear.
Did Neilsen’s patent — the first to integrate seating, tabletop, and a diagonal structure — mark the moment when the design of the picnic table was first resolved into the spare, utilitarian form we know today? Or was he simply adapting an earlier, undocumented design so that it could be transported? There is evidence that similar picnic tables were used as early as 1916, in the Forest Service campground at Eagle Creek, Oregon, the first developed camping facility on American public lands. 13 Those tables had no hinged components, but period photographs of a disassembled table suggest that portability was an important concern. It would make sense to use tables made from components that could be mass-produced in woodshops and transported on a flatbed truck to remote campsites. They could be assembled on site and later broken down and stored for the off-season. Even today, wood picnic tables sold at hardware stores are typically flatpacked for delivery.
The Roofless Cabin
By 1935, the picnic table had been sufficiently standardized that Albert Good, an architectural consultant for the National Park Service, could write, in his guide to Park Structures and Facilities: “An average of the dimensional limits of the human frame and uniformity of sorts in the distribution of hinges thereof have long since determined certain basic dimensions for the picnic table.” 14 He was correct that builders had adopted standard measurements for the width of the table top and seat, their respective heights above the ground, and the spacing between them; but he was wrong to assert a universal, ideal form, as if drawings and specifications had played no role in normalizing those dimensions in the first place.
Although Nielsen’s and Basford’s patents established the basic design principles, they did not include measurements. The National Park Service’s Table for Public Auto Camp (1922) first laid out the dimensions of a picnic table, and it also recorded a structural improvement, two diagonal braces along the main axis that provided additional stability. Remarkably, this document broke down the table into its individually dimensioned components: fifteen boards of milled lumber, including 2×4s and 2×6s for the frame and 2×12s for the table top and seats. The drawing even specified where the holes should be drilled for the structural bolts. A small note indicated that the design was “adapted from a Forest Service Table,” perhaps the same model identified earlier at Eagle Creek.
It is not surprising that the first technical drawing (at least the first that survives) would be issued by a government agency rather than a private inventor. The National Park Service, United States Forest Service, and Civilian Conservation Corps were major developers of campgrounds and picnic areas, especially during the New Deal era. As these facilities grew in popularity and size, the federal standards would prove more influential than comparable designs at independent municipal campgrounds. 15
Good’s 1935 handbook was the authoritative standard. Beautifully illustrated and enlivened with the author’s delightful commentary, it reported specifications for a range of infrastructural components in national parks. “Lamentable is the fact,” he observed, “that during the six days given over to creation, picnic tables, outdoor fireplaces, footbridges and many other of man’s requirements, even in natural surroundings, were negligently and entirely overlooked.” 16 The chapter on picnic tables reviewed several designs, some more rustic than others, and examples of their adaptation in parks across the country. These were typically massive structures, made from milled lumber, roughly sawn logs, or stone slabs, and their immobility was an important design feature which helped define the bounds of the campsite and limit human impact.
Emilio Meinecke, plant pathologist and consultant for the National Park Service, was an early observer of the destructive effects of camping in open campgrounds: “When man moves into the camp and adds to the handicaps by trampling out the grass and lower plants, or hardening and compacting the soil, of scattering the ashes and of scorching the foliage with his wood camp fire, the limits of toleration may be reached and overstepped.” Meinecke was especially concerned about automobiles: “The car, much clumsier to handle, crushes shrubs and sideswipes trees, tracing off living bark and severely injuring them. Oil, a deadly poison to plants, drips from the parked automobile.” 17
Meinecke proposed to mitigate those impacts through design, and his ideas were tremendously influential. He proposed the “definite fixation” of the automobile, the fire pit, the tent and the table, while allowing an informal network of trails between these key infrastructural components. Of the picnic table in particular, he advised, “Only tables of very heavy construction involving considerable expenditure can be considered.” 18 Echoing this perspective, the Park Service manual observed, “The fixed position, if a good one, is desirable, and is achieved by means of the weight of the picnic unit or table, or better still, by anchoring.” 19
Terry Young notes that, for Meinecke, this vision of the campsite as a roofless cabin “included many of the same essential commodities that were found in a suburban home: the garage, the kitchen stove, the dining table and the sleeping quarters, with enough space to move around without inconvenience.” 20 Only a hundred years before, the Victorians had shared in this vision, moving the meal from the interior confines of the dining room to the out-of-doors. So their disorientation would not be complete, they tried to lend a measure of formality to the occasion by using blankets as tablecloths, creating a space around which the meal could be set and consumed. By the 1930s, the entire apparatus of domestic life — not only eating, but cooking and sleeping as well — had been moved outdoors. Hundreds of families would be going through the same motions in a single campground, many within sight of one another.
In his history of the picnic, Walter Levy wrote, “All picnics might be structurally similar, but the preferences are idiosyncratic.” 21 That observation also applies to picnic tables. While their basic features are essentially similar, they are distinguished by the details, like additional cleats, narrower boards, bigger bolts, chamfered corners, and so forth.
In these differences we locate the table’s essence, the aspects that make it both unique and unremarkable. Tracing the design history of a culturally significant yet nearly invisible object, we collect drawings and photographs, arrange them by date, and compare their attributes. We start with the modern features of the table, and move back in time, observing those features as they become less and less clear, until they no longer exist: this is the beginning of the history.
Now, let’s eat!
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