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Catalog Data

W. Atlee Burpee Company  Search this
Burpee, W. Atlee (Washington Atlee), 1858-1915  Search this
Burpee, David, 1893-1980  Search this
James Vick's Sons (Rochester, N.Y.).  Search this
Wm. Henry Maule (Firm)  Search this
201 Cubic feet
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Business records
Account books
Trade catalogs
circa 1873-1986
bulk 1890-1930
The W. Atlee Burpee & Company records, dated circa 1873-1986, document the firm's business activities developing plant varieties and marketing and selling seeds. They include accounting records, seed trial records, seed contracts, sales records, inventories, office correspondence, seed catalogs, promotional and instructional materials, advertisements and advertising reports, contest letters, daybooks, photographs, reference materials, and other items relating to the company and some of its competitors.
Scope and Contents:
This collection documents W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a mail-order seed company based in Philadelphia, from its early beginnings in 1876 when its founder, W. Atlee Burpee, started in the agricultural business, to the 1970s when his son, David Burpee, sold the family's then-global company. The collection also includes personal papers of the Burpee family dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Business-related content in the collection consists of crop propagation and management records; company correspondence; administrative and personnel records; advertising files; legal papers; property records and plans; reports, studies, and technical data; notes and drafts; files on professional outreach activities and events; trade literature (published by both the Burpee company and a number of its competitors); and awards and certificates received by the company. Significant topics documented in these files include the development of notable flower and vegetable novelties introduced by the company; the impact of World Wars I and II on gardening and the global seed trade; advertising strategies, technology, and innovation; and David Burpee's involvement in the national floral emblem congressional debate. The Burpee family papers consist of personal files unrelated to the company's business operations. This includes records generated by W. Atlee's father (David Burpee, 1827-1882) and grandfather (Washington L. Atlee, 1808-1878), as well as W. Atlee's wife, Blanche (1863-1948); David Burpee (1893-1980) and his wife, Lois (1912-1984); and W. Atlee Burpee II (1894-1966). There are genealogical surveys conducted on both the Atlee and Burpee families as well as clippings about family members. W. Atlee and David Burpee's series are the most extensive and cover their involvement with numerous clubs and societies such as the Canadian Society of Philadelphia, the Union League of Philadelphia, and, for David Burpee, his involvement with Pearl S. Buck's Welcome House charity. The series include personal correspondence; financial, accounting, and tax records; files generated during vacations; reference material; and will and estate papers. The Burpee collection also has a large number of images related to the Burpee business and family in a variety of formats including photographs, film and glass plate negatives, and advertisement mock-ups. Other formats include architectural and site plans, original artwork for advertisements, films, cassettes, audio tapes, and ephemera.
Collection is arranged into six series: Series 1: Plant/Farm Related Material Series 2: Business Records Series 3: Material Published About the Burpee Company Series 4: Awards and Certificates Series 5: Photographic and A/V Materials Series 6: Burpee Family Papers
Biographical / Historical:
Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) began a mail-order poultry and livestock business in 1876 in Philadelpia, which he soon expanded to include corn seed for chicken feed. In 1878, he founded W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the primary focus of which was to sell vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds through the mail. This company would go on to become one of the most notable seed distributors in the United States. By 1888, Burpee's family home, Fordhook Farms, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was established as an experimental farm to test and evaluate new varieties of vegetables and flowers, and to produce seeds. Burpee spent many summers traveling throughout the United States and Europe, visiting farms and searching for the best flowers and vegetables; certain plants he found were shipped to Fordhook Farms for testing. Plants that survived were bred with healthier specimens to produce heartier hybrids that were more resistant to disease. Other Burpee trial gardens were established in Lompoc, California and near Swedesboro, New Jersey. Burpee's son David took over the family business upon his father's death in 1915. At that time, the Burpee Company had 300 employees and was the largest mail order seed company in the world. It distributed over one million catalogs a year and received as many as 10,000 orders a day. In response to food shortages caused by World War I, the Burpee Company helped promote a "war gardens" campaign that evolved into a "victory gardens" campaign during World War II. Both were aimed at city dwellers and instructed them on how to grow vegetables for their own consumption to aid in the war effort. Sometime in the 1930s, the Burpee Company entered into a business relationship with the James Vick's Company of Rochester, New York. In 1947, Burpee purchased the assets of and rights to the use of the name of the Wm. Henry Maule Co. In 1970, Burpee was sold to General Foods; the corporate headquarters moved from Philadelphia to Warminster, Pennsylvania in 1974. David Burpee remained a consultant for the company until his death in 1981. In 1991, the Burpee Company was acquired by George J. Ball, Inc.
Related Materials:
Burpee seed catalogs donated to the Smithsonian in 1982 by the W. Atlee Burpee Company can be found in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Branch Library Trade Literature Collection.
Access to original images by appointment only. Researcher must submit request for appointment in writing. Certain items may be restricted and not available to researchers. Please direct reference inquiries to the Archives of American Gardens:
Archives of American Gardens encourages the use of its archival materials for non-commercial, educational and personal use under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law. Use or copyright restrictions may exist. It is incumbent upon the researcher to ascertain copyright status and assume responsibility for usage. All requests for duplication and use must be submitted in writing and approved by Archives of American Gardens.
Seed industry and trade  Search this
Mail-order business  Search this
Gardens -- United States  Search this
Business  Search this
Agriculture  Search this
Horticulture  Search this
Vegetables  Search this
Flowers  Search this
Trial gardens  Search this
Victory gardens  Search this
Contests  Search this
Business records
Account books -- 19th century
Account books -- 20th century
Trade catalogs
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.
See more items in:
W. Atlee Burpee & Company records
Archival Repository:
Archives of American Gardens