The W. Atlee Burpee & Company records, dated circa 1873-1986, document the firm's business activities developing plant varieties, working with contract seedsmen, and marketing and selling seeds. They include seed trial records, seed contracts, sales and acccounting 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. The collection also includes Burpee family papers.
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 firm. 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 varieties 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 advocacy of the marigold as the national floral emblem of the United States.
The Burpee family papers consist of personal files unrelated to the company's business operations. These include 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 social and philanthropic clubs and organizations. The series include personal correspondence; financial, accounting, and tax records; travel-related files; 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
The collection's original order was maintained wherever possible, though many records were found scattered throughout the collection and artificial files were necessarily created for them.
Most files are arranged chronologically or alphabetically by person or topic.
Various photographs interspersed in correspondence files were kept where they were originally found. All other photographic and audio/visual materials found on their own were grouped in Series 5 Photographic and A/V Material which documents aspects of both the Burpee company and Burpee family.
Biographical / Historical:
Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) began a mail-order poultry and livestock business in 1876 in Philadelphia, which he soon expanded to include corn seed for chicken feed. In 1878, he founded W. Atlee Burpee & Co. to sell livestock and vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds through the mail. His company went on to become one of the most notable seed distributors in the world.
In 1888, W. Atlee bought a tract of land named Fordhook Farms in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It was initially established as an experimental farm to test and evaluate new varieties of vegetables and flowers and to produce seeds for the mail-order market. 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 back to the firm for testing and propagation; other seeds were obtained through contracts with growers throughout the U.S., a practice common in the seed industry at that time. Promising varieties were bred with healthier specimens to produce hardier hybrids that were more resistant to disease. Other Burpee trial grounds were later established at Sunnybrook Farm near Swedesboro, New Jersey, and at Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California (1909/1910). The company went on to purchase more land for farming in California, and established sales branch headquarters in Sanford, Florida (circa 1930s), Clinton, Iowa (1942), and Riverside, California (1949).
W. Atlee Burpee married Blanche Simons (1863-1948) in 1892. They had three sons: David (1893-1980); W. Atlee Jr. ("Junior") (1894-1966); and Stuart Alexander (1901-1934). Both David and Junior attended the Blight School in Philadelphia for elementary school and Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana for preparatory school. While they both attended Cornell University as undergraduates, they left before graduating due to W. Atlee's poor health. Junior married Jeanetta Lee (1893-1981) in November, 1916, and they had two children: W. Atlee III (1917-1971) and Jeanette (1919-2002). David married Lois Torrance (1912-1984) in 1938, and they had two children: Johnathan (b. 1941) and Blanche (b. 1943). Stuart Alexander was apparently born with a disability; according to census records he worked on farms during his lifetime.
David Burpee took over the family business upon his father's death in 1915; W. Atlee Burpee, Jr. served as treasurer of the firm once he returned from serving in the military. 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 on average 10,000 orders a day. Under David's tutelage, the company adapted to contemporaneous shifts in business and advertising methods, advancements in plant science, ever-changing consumer demands, and two World Wars. In response to food shortages experienced during World War I, the Burpee company helped promote a "war gardens" campaign that evolved into a "victory gardens" campaign during World War II.
Both W. Atlee and David used their position as head of a major seed house to lobby congressional debates in regard to two topics: postage rates (W. Atlee) and the designation of a national floral emblem for the United States (David). Both men belonged to The Union League of Philadelphia and The Canadian Society of Philadelphia (which W. Atlee helped found), and served on the boards of directors for hospitals and other charitable organizations. Both father and son were politically aligned with the Republican Party.
The firm reorganized its governing structure in 1917 at which time it changed its name from W. Atlee Burpee & Co. to W. Atlee Burpee Co. Burpee's acquired three seed companies between 1878 and 1970: Luther Burbank Seed Company, James Vick's Seeds, Inc., and the William Henry Maule Company. David Burpee sold the company to the General Foods Corporation in 1970 and served as a consultant for the business until 1973. The Burpee brand was bought by its current owner, George J. Ball, Inc., in 1991.
Burpee seed catalogs donated to the Smithsonian in 1982 by the W. Atlee Burpee Co. can be found in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives' Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History.
The Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division includes a series of images of Burpee company operations taken in 1943.
The Black Gold Cooperative Library System's Asian/Pacific - Americans on the Central Coast Collection includes images dated 1933-1939 of Japanese employees of the Burpee Co. working at Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California.
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