W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records
1873-1978 (bulk 1890-1930)
The Burpee business is builded not for the present only, but with an outlook to the future. A business that has no vision of the future or the object which is mere money-making would not be worth a life's work
The Archives of American Gardens includes the business records of a number of nurseries and seed companies that operated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including W. Atlee Burpee & Company (Pennsylvania), H. Weber & Sons (Maryland), and Bedman Brothers (New Jersey).
The horticulture and floriculture trades during this period experienced huge expansion due in part to scientific advancements and the power of advertising. With regard to the latter, companies aggressively marketed their wares through mail order catalogs and displays of their products in prominent store locations.
The W. Atlee Burpee Company, for example, published an extensive catalog each year that was filled with mouth-watering illustrations and descriptions of vegetables and flowers that detailed their size, color, and growth characteristics. Distinctive names such as “Defiance Pansies,” “Matchless Melon,” and “Success Tomato” conjured up visions of triumph in the minds of both amateur gardeners and professional farmers. By 1915, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world, distributing over a million catalogs a year and receiving 10,000 orders a day.
Above Image: Advertisement for Burpee’s New “Fordhook” Musk Melon, 1907: W. Atlee Burpee & Company established Fordhook Farms in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as an experimental farm in 1888, the first of its kind in America. Seed trials and introductions were made there, giving rise to new plant varieties. The Burpee Company advertised Fordhook’s vegetables, like this musk melon, through its colorfully illustrated seed catalogs.
Scope and Content
The records consists of approximately 12,715 items, including account books, diaries, seed trial records, office correspondence, contest letters, seed catalogs, and other items relating to W. Atlee Burpee & Company and its competitors. The collection ranges from 1873-1978, with the majority of items dating from 1890-1930.
Originally setting up a mail-order poultry company in 1876 with two business partners, W. Atlee Burpee had his own ideas about how he wanted to expand the business. Two years later Burpee formed his own company, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and expanded the offerings to include vegetable seeds, while continuing poultry sales until the 1940s. This mail order seed business proved to be a major success. In 1888, the family farm, Fordhook Farms in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was established as an experimental farm, the first of its kind in America. At Fordhook Farms seed trials and introductions were made, giving rise to new plant varieties. This pursuit was continued in 1909 with the establishment of Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California for sweet pea trials and Sunnybrook Farms near Swedesboro, New Jersey for tomato, eggplant, pepper and squash trials.
W. Atlee Burpee kept his eye on the competition in the mail order seed business. This is reflected in the company records with catalogs representing various competitors including the James Vick Seed Company, which W. Atlee Burpee & Company eventually acquired during the mid-1900s. Other competitors represented include Maule’s Seed Company, a Philadelphia business started in 1877. William Henry Maule was one of W. Atlee Burpee’s original business partners and a lifelong friend.
At the time of W. Atlee Burpee’s death in 1915, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world, distributing over a million catalogs a year and receiving 10,000 orders a day. In the 1920s Burpee seeds were being sold in such faraway places as Shanghai and Europe. W. Atlee’s son, David, took over the family business in 1915. Under David’s watch, W. Atlee Burpee & Company started a “war gardens” campaign in World War I which involved into a “Victory Gardens” campaign during World War II.
W. Atlee Burpee & Company were committed to advertising their products. In fact, during the early 1900s the company set up a program with publishers of advertising in exchange for seeds. Publishers were eager to get their hands on the much talked about Burpee seeds. Another advertising initiative included heavily prescribed contests, such as the 1924 campaign “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me” which offered $1,000 in cash prizes. Over 4,000 Burpee customers responded to this contest.
Much of Burpee’s advertising occurred through its Burpee Annual. Noted as “the silent salesman of the world’s largest mail-order seed trade,” W. Atlee Burpee drafted the Burpee Annual in his own hand for forty years up until his death. These Annuals detail not only the history of agriculture and the seed industry, but also of advertising. In 1884 the Annual featured three full color chromolithographs of Burpee new Cardinal tomato, as well as dahlias and cannas. In 1901 Burpee's used for the first time illustrations printed from engravings made by a mechanical process called photogravure.