Scientific Snack Breaks: Picnics in the Field Books

Go on a picnic through the field book collection, with a look at scientific snack breaks.

Group from Survey of Colorado at Camp July is National Picnic Month, but when you are a Smithsonian scientist on expedition, enjoying a meal in the great outdoors is a year-round occurrence. Like other daily happenings, stopping for a picnic was something worth recording in a field book. Thanks to the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the details of these field books—from the big discoveries, to a more mundane break for a picnic lunch—are searchable and easily navigable. So, pack your favorite snack and let’s take a picnic trip through the field books!

While occasionally a picnic area or table was used as a land-marker in scientific notes (like in paleobiologist G. Arthur Cooper’s, or in bird observations written by James W. Eike), stopping for a break to eat was often part of the day-to-day narratives of the field books.

For example, entomologist Richard Blackwelder often noted his favorite picnic spots while traveling for research (in the West Indies, it was High Point in St. Johns on the island of Antigua), or taking a Studebaker out with colleagues to find a picnic spot with a good view.

From the journal of Richard E. Blackwelder, West Indies, Vol. 5. The same was true for naturalist and collector David Crockett Graham, who emphasized the social aspect of a picnic outing. While collecting birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles throughout China in 1924, he mentions enjoying a “picnic supper” with his family on a hot August evening.

For others, stopping for a picnic meant stopping to collect natural history specimens along the way. On National Zoo Director William Mann’s 1937 expedition to the Dutch East Indies, with his wife, Lucile, picnics were frequent. Often, the team would stop for a picnic by the side of the road, or by a pool or stream, as they trekked through the mountains. Lucile’s descriptions of the picnics offer a unique insight into the expedition’s travel conditions:

“At noon we were near another train into the same jungle, and stopped by the roadside to have a picnic lunch before we started working again. The only place where we could sit down off the road and out of the swamp, was a gravel pit, so there we sat, in the broiling heat, only a few miles from the Equator and almost at sea level, and wondered why so many of our tinned supplies and cheeses had gone bad. Anything that rides on the back of our car must be simply cooked and re-cooked long before we get it. We had our canteens filled, fortunately, and divided the drinking water. Also we had two coconuts to drink, for we were all more thirsty and hungry.”

The Mann expedition group often collected or observed species as they picnicked, as did the National History Museum’s Robert Gibbs, who took a lunch break while taking notes on dragonflies. After his picnic, he details an elaborate, 2.5 hour “chase” and triumphant capture of a dragonfly:

From the field notebook of Robert H. Gibbs, Jr.

Now that you are ready for a lunch break, what do you pack? Take some sandwich inspiration from this menu from a Buenos Aires restaurant, visited by the Mann’s in 1939.

From the scrapbook of William and Lucile Mann's South American trip, 1939.

Related Resources

Where in the World Is That Field Book?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Scientific field work and food, Field Book Project

Smithsonian Institution Archives projects, Smithsonian Transcription Center 

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