There's a reason the little girl in my drawing is holding a woven picnic basket rather than a takeout paper bag. I've always been attracted to the old, unhurried ways of doing things - picnics included.Not so very long ago, you couldn't just pull up to a drive-through window and order the No. 2 special with fries, or pop a few quarters in a vending machine. If you wanted to eat out, advance planning was key: You packed a picnic. You knew the perfect spot to enjoy your meal and allowed plenty of time to spread it out in style. People didn't sit with sandwich wrap in their laps eating burgers as they shot down the interstate at 70 mph.
In the early 20th century, picnic gear was in its heyday: Wicker-wrapped bottles and jugs protected glass from shattering. Baskets were compartmentalized so nothing could shift, spill or drip. Some baskets were practically sideboards in their complexity, with tons of compartments and accessories, including silver serving ware that fit in the lid along with china, and chrome cups in leather containers. Some baskets were made of tin but had lithographed decorations that just mimicked wicker.
Then, around the '20s, picnic baskets began evolving from unwieldy wicker models to cheaper and lighter metal types, usually ornamented with plaid stripes. Though they're arguably less grand than their wicker predecessors, I think I love this kind even more - they're just such a slice of Americana. When the American Thermos Bottle Co. debuted its "Polly Red Top" plastic stopper in 1954 - the first completely insulated enclosure - it ushered in the modern picnic age.
Now, I'll admit that picnic technology has advanced a great deal since then, and today we have all sorts of coolers and jugs made of miracle materials. But those older pieces still serve a function: They make great storage while also looking good. I inherited one from my Uncle Wayne that I especially love; he used to keep tools in it, but I now keep it in the pantry to hide the dog biscuits. So, too, picnic hampers look great stacked on a porch; they make stylish stashes for books, napkins and glassware. Or display them in your kitchen along the tops of cabinets, where their cheerful plaid patterns add just the right homey touch.
Every so often, you'll actually see their splendor in the grass: Purists still bring them along on special outings - for instance, an Independence Day party in the park with family and friends. Once you've spread out the '50s floral pattern luncheon cloth, gotten out the vintage cotton tea towels and popped open your pretty basket, you'll never go back to takeout again.