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The Golden Age of Picnic sets

by Tony Wraight


Assorted Picnic Sets
Picture of Picnic Sets

The age of the motor car and the motorway has brought many blessings. The ability to travel the length and breadth of the country in comparative ease and comfort (traffic jams and road works permitting). The capacity to cover large mileage at high speeds is now a part of our lives.

Life is a hard taskmaster however, and teaches us that as we gain we lose, and as modern road development manifests itself, so another custom fades into oblivion. One of these is the picnic hamper, seen now only occasionally, can now stir memories of a bygone age, when the summers were guaranteed from April until September, and life was a much more leisurely business to be savoured rather than devoured.

The picnic so became an essential part of the travellers accoutrements in the coaching days of the 18th and 19th Centuries and, since many early cars were little more than horse-carriages, it was perhaps natural for picnic sets to retain their importance with the ‘new fangled horseless carriages’.

Barrett & Sons 4 Person wicker fold fronted picnic set, c.1905
Picture of Barrett set Closed Picture of Barrett set Open

Picnic sets aimed specifically at the motoring fraternity began to appear at the turn of the 20th century and were mostly wicker cased. Some were very small and contained only the bare essentials, often little more than a flask, glass and sandwich tin. Others started to appear aimed at the upper classes as the motor cars became larger and more expensive- these were often made in leather, and much more sumptuously fitted. Sometimes to fit inside the car, and to double as footrests or otherwise to fit precisely and blend with early formal or sporting coachwork. Many early Rolls-Royces had sets fitted to the running board in a variety of styles.

1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with 4 person Asprey picnic set
Picture of Ghost Car Picture of Asprey Picnic

The interior fittings of many of these early sets were a tribute to the fertile minds of their designers. Every conceivable picnic requirement was catered for and fitted into its own custom-made compartment of either wood, leather, leathercloth or wicker covered wire. Separate compartments were made for plates, saucers, glasses, sandwich boxes, condiment sets, glasses, milk bottles, drinks bottles, kettles, burners, oil containers etc. Often ceramic butter and preserves pots were supplied, their lids secured by leather straps. The finest early sets were made by Asprey, Barratt, Coracle, Drew, Louis Vuitton, Mappin & Webb, Vickery and sometimes special commission sets were ordered for the nobility of the time, and often a Royal Warrant was included into the label plate.

Obviously personal requirements varied greatly, and the size of the proposed site of the picnic set, either inside or out of the vehicle to house the set, usually determined the number of persons that could be entertained. Click below to see just about every possible type of picnic set that you would ever be likely to encounter, from the humblest set to fit an Austin to the very finest suitable for the grandest Rolls Royce.

Types of Picnic Sets

The variety of sets still continue to amaze me. During the past 30 years, I have now probably handled over 500 different types of picnic sets produced for the pre-war years, and they were produced in all sizes, from very simple dainty one person sets, to gigantic wooden, brass bound ones for six or even eight persons.

The most sought after sets are usually ones in honey leather, that fold down on the front panel, to reveal a fine kettle and burner, and sets that have provision for drinks also within the case.

A very popular range were made by Coracle, usually in black leathercloth, in a great variety of sizes and were basically of a suitcase type, of four and six persons - these ranged from just simple thermos types, to the finer sets that had provision for a central kettle and burner, with china cups & saucers, and were also provided with drinks bottles and glasses.

Asprey travelling Cocktail set for six persons. C.1920
Picture of Cocktail set closed Picture of Cocktail set Open

For gentlemen with a taste for the grape, travelling cocktail sets were also available with compartments for bottles, glasses, cocktail shakers, and sometimes even containing ice buckets! For the lady, reluctant to relinquish her title to things domestic, special dainty tea sets were produced containing the basic necessities for an en route ‘brew’, so often fine china teapots were incorporated, sets were lined with suede, and quite dainty teaspoons provided.

James Dixon travelling teaset for two persons. C.1905
Picture of teaset 1 Picture of teaset 2

After the second World War, quality picnic set production declined greatly, and cheap mass produced sets were the order of the day in plastic and garish colours to go with the cars of the fifties and sixties.

Finesse Fine Art offer a range of original picnic sets, many of which are unique examples of the exquisite craftsmanship which went into these symbols of an age of elegance, the like of which we will never see again. Not only are they reminders of those halcyon days when motorists were the ‘jet-setters’ of their age, they also represent a sound financial investment for the future.

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