Wednesday, November 29, 2023


The history of a camper’s favorite dining seat: the picnic table

Adam and Eve were probably the first people to enjoy dining outside. Holding your food proved to be somewhat problematic, so eventually a blanket was introduced to the outdoor dining experience. The blanket had its drawbacks, and picnickers everywhere dreamed of a device that would hold not only their food, but themselves up and off the ground. It was time for a novel invention. A picnic table! And here’s how it happened.

Victorian age

In the Victorian period, outdoor picnics became popularized. Genteel ladies and gents of that era often took food to a grassy field or meadow. There, they spread a blanket on the ground, sat, and commenced to eating.

The problem with the blanket concept was that ants and other creepy crawly creatures often invaded the picnic, therefore ruining the serene atmosphere. (Who can be expected to keep her fascinator on straight whilst smacking ants with her fan?)

The meadow grasses were often wet with dew or rain, as well. This dampened the experience for everyone involved. And then, too, there was the problem of comfort. (How does one go about sitting serenely on a blanket while wearing a long gown that features not only a tight corset but a bustle, as well? I can’t imagine.) And surely the Victorians would frown upon anyone so boorish as to recline upon the blanket to eat! What was a proper Victorian to do? It was indeed a conundrum. Until…


Charles H. Nielsen of Kreischerville, New York, stepped up to tackle the picnic problem. Nielsen experimented with different designs for a collapsible table that could be easily transported. He based his design on the X-shaped legs of an 18th century sawbuck table, featuring a table board that rested on top of the X braces. Then Nielsen incorporated built-in seating. He received a patent for his collapsible picnic table in 1904.

Diagram of a picnic table
Image credit: C. H. Nielsen, “Table,” U.S. Patent, 1904. Places Journal.

Needs some tweaking

Nielsen soon discovered that his picnic table needed some refinement. Any weight imbalance caused the table to collapse! Nielsen quickly came up with a way to resolve the tip-over flaw in his original design. He added braces to his structure for the fix.

Picnic table upgrades

In 1918, Harold R. Basford refined Nielsen’s original picnic table design. With the popularity of the automobile increasing, more and more families ventured out of the cities to picnic in the country. Picnic sites sprang up all around, often advertising “Automobile parking with free picnic tables!” Soon, fire rings were added to the sites, as well. (Hmmm. Almost like a camping spot…)

A postcard from 1911 of a picnic grove at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

Today’s picnic table

Most state and national parks today feature a simplified version of Nielsen’s and Basford’s table designs. This modern version first appeared in 1926, in California’s Lassen National Forest. Soon, forest rangers across the country referred to the tables as Lassen tables. This is the table you probably used for last night’s dinner in the campground. Victorians surely would have approved!

At a recent staff meeting, editors and writers talked about our favorite picnic table of all time—the one with the best view. As you think about that very topic, what picnic table location would you crown as your very best? Share your favorite in the comments below.


Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh is an avid RVer and occasional work camper. Retired from 30+ years in the field of education as an author and educator, she now enjoys sharing tips and tricks that make RVing easier and more enjoyable.



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Molly (@guest_226882)
8 months ago

I think the most picturesque spot with a picnic table is just off of Hwy 62/180 in Guadalupe National Park in Texas. The table is in the shadow of Guadalupe Peak. It is surprisingly peaceful and pleasant.

Drew (@guest_226863)
8 months ago

I loved this! Thanks RV Travel!

Mary Beth (@guest_226839)
8 months ago

My favorite view from a picnic table is at Jay Cooke State Park (MN) looking over the St. Louis River with the jagged upturned slabs of rock and the swinging bridge. Serene, unless they have opened the Thompson Dam making the River wild and ferocious. The view is always mesmerizing.

Bob Walter (@guest_226778)
8 months ago

Enjoyed the story of the history of picnic tables!
Now, where did the word “picnic” come from? Hmmm?

Glenda Alexander (@guest_226899)
8 months ago
Reply to  Bob Walter

I searched for that and found this: › articles › wordroutes › blanket-statement-the-origins-of-picnic
Blanket Statement: The Origins of “Picnic” : Word Routes –
Pique-nique first appeared in French in 1692, referring to a fancy restaurant dinner where everyone in the group brought their own bottles of wine. The word kept that meaning of a meal where every guest contributes a bottle or dish, but soon gained the additional sense of taking place outside, always with a connotation of elegance and leisure.

So, now we know.

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