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Luxurious, full-service picnics are a new spin on an old American tradition

Wealthy Americans have long demanded their outdoor experiences without the downsides of the outdoors.

Families enjoy an outing at the picnic area at the Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Weary of the pandemic and eager to enjoy post-vaccination life, Americans are pouring into the streets to dine outdoors, walk maskless where restrictions have been loosened and gather in the sunshine after a long winter.

Some are even splurging on decadent pop-up picnics, shelling out as much as $3,000 for attendants to cook, serve and clean while partyers take their leisure on soft white rugs and pose for pictures.

Event organizers are using Instagram to show off tables covered in linens, candles and fine china, in idyllic redwood and beachfront settings. Chandeliers hang from wooden canopies. Upscale marketers and influencers are hyping their picnic displays on social media.

Newspaper writers and bloggers have described these louche picnics as a “trend that has sparked in 2020” and a response to “people … craving new, inventive ways to be together outside.”

But this idea of luxurious outdoor hangouts, with paid attendants responding to your every whim in far-flung places, goes back at least to the mid-19th century. Recalling this history tells us that affluent urbanites have long yearned for a taste of nature without any strain or inconvenience.

Then, affluent Northeastern campers paid wilderness guides to catch their fish, help shoot their game and prepare their meals. Well-heeled campers, known as “sports,” had no need for tents. A paid helper was there to create a camping hut on the spot by skinning and hacking down living trees. Often, the shacks were abandoned after only one use.

In the 1850s and ‘60s, widely circulated travelogues and illustrations in books, journals and newspapers helped make the Adirondacks of Upstate New York an early hot spot for upscale camping initiatives, which increased in popularity after the Civil War.

Clearly, stressed-out wealthy urbanites in any century love being fussed over in the outdoors, allowing them to face the forces of nature in a risk-free, comforting environment. Like today’s pop-up picnickers, the high-class sports craved pampering, a manufactured sense of nature’s authenticity, as well as popular platforms to boast about their experiences.

For elite camping guides whose mastery of the woods made up for their clients’ incompetence, it was good business. Sports vied for the services of Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps, who was happy to play the role of backcountry yokel when it satisfied his clients’ demand for a ‘real’ Adirondack experience.

Like today’s picnic impresarios, the guides catered to a clientele that longed to escape the claustrophobia, strain and drudgery of daily life. Affluent 19th century lawyers, entrepreneurs and doctors wanted to leave behind their stressful jobs, but not the creature comforts that their jobs made possible.

Campers sometimes brought suits and ties into the deep woods. A menu for one 1858 Adirondacks camping trip mentioned a smorgasbord of pancakes, frog legs, rice pudding, pork, beans, fried venison, punch, brandy and whiskey. The paid guides brought flat-bottomed, sturdy guide boats that their wealthy clients could pile with mattresses, fine china, canned ham and “shrub,” a Victorian alcoholic punch.

The Adirondacks’ network of waterways made it possible for campers to have lavish movable feasts. A sport would arrive at a desired camping spot, and the guides would start hacking, sawing, shooting and frying.

In the early days of these campouts, the target demographic was overwhelmingly male. The artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait helped popularize masculine Adirondack excursions with paintings such as “A Good Time Coming” (1862), which the famed printing company Currier & Ives turned into a full-color and widely reproduced lithograph.

The painting shows a sport, reportedly John C. Force, a wealthy New York restaurateur, wearing a comfortable jacket and lazing in front of a hand-built camping cabin with a drink in hand. Meanwhile one paid guide stoops down to fry some meat over a cookfire while another sport looks on. A second guide stands at attention in front of a guide boat, with a string of freshly caught fish. A crate of fine wine appears in the foreground.

“A Good Time Coming” illustrated just how much the mid-to-late 19th century sports relied on other people to micromanage their wilderness vacations. “Generally, a party consisted of a group of about three or four city sportsmen and the same number of guides,” wrote Phil Terrie, an Adirondack and environmental historian. “Romantic travelers did not venture into the wilderness alone.”

Tait’s painting, like today’s pop-up picnics, seems custom-crafted to inspire FOMO — fear of missing out. Those original campers engaged in rugged, manly activities — hunting and fishing, tromping through the woods — that they could brag about, while enjoying the amenities of urban living.

After returning home to their cities, the sports extolled the survivalist credentials of their seasoned wilderness guides, but they also described them in patronizing language, calling attention to their class differences, speech patterns and lack of formal education.

Yet, this activity wasn’t all about displaying social status. Camping offered perceived psychological and physical benefits — for those who could afford it. Indeed it was a Boston-based minister William H.H. Murray (1840-1904) who accelerated the post-Civil War recreational camping frenzy with his best-selling 1869 book “Adventures In The Wilderness, Or Camp-Life In The Adirondacks” by arguing that excursions to the woods would cure mental ailments.

The book was a success because of its hands-on format as well as its timeliness. Starting in the late 1860s, newspapers and magazines ran alarmist headlines about neurasthenia, a mental condition that was blamed on the frantic changes of modernization and industrialization, instigating insanity, suicide and, according to one 19th century account, “sick headaches, neuralgia, hysteria and melancholy.”

Prominent doctors recommended high-elevation wilderness trips as a cure for neurasthenia, as well as contagious ailments such as tuberculosis.

Murray contended that guided camping trips were suitable even for those with delicate constitutions. Wasting and stressed-out city dwellers could become strong and hearty again in the healing mountain air. Campers would fish in “luxury … along the shores of these secluded lakes” and take their rest “upon a bed of balsam-boughs.”

Such campouts were already fashionable as a male pursuit, but Murray helped broaden the demographic to women and children, while luring more middle-class campers, much to the chagrin of hunters such as Thomas Bangs Thorpe, a writer who dismissed Murray’s writings as “fashionable twaddle.”

Murray undersold the unpredictability and rigor of outdoor living, resulting in backlash when entitled pleasure seekers mobbed the Adirondacks, got chomped by black flies and found themselves tromping through mud and muck. Those unlucky campers were later derided as “Murray’s Fools,” a bunch of underprepared rubes who paid the price for imposing their lofty expectations on indifferent nature.

American camping would evolve over the years, with the popularization of wilderness survival skills, strenuous living and post-World War II lightweight backpacking equipment. But when camping first became a craze, it was a managed experience that relied on exploited labor from guides who were part of the 19th century equivalent of today’s gig economy.

Murray’s book also created a demand that far outpaced the number of reliable camping guides. Even unscrupulous locals with scant backcountry experience could charge premium prices to take clueless city dwellers into the forest.

Those who eked out a subsistence existence from trapping or logging could have lucrative sidelines as guides, though the best ones worked hard to earn their pay. An in-demand guide would be expected to steer a guide boat, haul luggage, chop trees and regale the sports with folksy stories and harmonica melodies.

Today’s post-pandemic upscale pop-up picnics are only the latest variations on the roughing it easy theme. These picnics seem to be an offshoot of the popular trend called glamping — a neologism for glamour camping — which both dominated Instagram and triggered backlash from self-styled camping purists who derided this ritzy, effortless version of outdoor living.

But history suggests such criticisms are unfair. When it comes to American recreational traditions, pop-up picnicking has a solid claim on authenticity, blending luxuries and the veneer of rustic living in a way that any 19th century sport would recognize. The equipment has changed, but the splurge remains the same.