A History of Picnicking in Prospect Park
Summer is synonymous with picnics in Prospect Park, and our visitors can be seen laying out blankets and busting out a healthy spread, much as they have done for the 150-year history of the Park. Prospect Park Alliance is paying tribute to the occasion with a history of picnicking in the Park—a time-honored Brooklyn tradition, and a luxury not afforded to 19th century visitors of Central Park.
Excerpted from Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece, Princeton Architectural Press, 2013
When the Park opened to visitors in the 1860’s, the Park’s picnic areas quickly attracted large crowds of visitors, particularly to the Dairy, where the quiet, shady grounds drew visitors during summers. The cottage stood wonderfully secluded at the end off the Midwood. As no drives extended to the Dairy, children could play there without fear of being run over by a carriage, and adults could relax and doze. Chairs and tables were provided inside and outside on a grassy area where families could drink tea and coffee. Milk was also available warm or chilled, supplied by a half-dozen cows that grazed on the Long Meadow.
About the Dairy, Prospect Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote, “A man from any class shall say to his wife…’ ‘My dear, when the children come home from school, put some bread and butter and a salad in a basket and go to the chestnut tree…We will walk to the dairy-man’s cottage and get some tea and fresh milk for the children and take our supper by the brook-side.’”
While Brooklynites enjoyed their meals en plein air, Manhattan’s residents were not so lucky, with Central Park prohibiting the activity. The Brooklyn Eagle reported on August 15, 1886, “The park authorities of Gotham would shudder at the thought of picnic parties in Central Park, where the grass is sacred to sheep but denied to children.” By contrast, it was not a crime in Prospect Park for a visitor to “lie supine upon the grass and devour his lunch in the Roman style, using the splendid turf for a triclinium.”
Within a decade of the Dairy’s opening, it became so crowded that the main picnic ground was moved across the Long Meadow to the larger lawn and shelter around the present-day Picnic House. By the 1920’s, the Park provided 1,200 picnic tables, and even those were not enough to satisfy demand—people were asked to eat in shifts to accommodate availability of tables.
Picnicking became a tradition so ingrained in Prospect Park that the Brooklyn Eagle proclaimed that it was more cherished than the Fourth of July fireworks or Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
Today, Prospect Park remains one of the City’s most popular destinations for picnicking. We welcome BBQs in the Park in designated areas, and picnicking throughout the Park. Learn more about barbecues and picnics in Prospect Park, and enjoy taking part in this time-honored Brooklyn tradition!