Saturday, January 28, 2017

W. Atlee Burpee Company

Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) started young in his interest in poultry breeding and other farm animals, included collies and finally seeds.  There is much lore surrounding the sixteen year old developing expert in genetics (see but one thing certain, he was to become a highly intelligent business man.

By the 1880s, the W. Atlee Burpee Company was supplying seed as well as livestock.  His guarantee of satisfaction for one year from date of purchase and the beauty of his catalogs contributed to success.

Typically he used immigrant watercolorists from Germantown, PA to paint the pictures of the plants you could grow from his seeds.

A problem that still exists today, Burpee found the seeds he brought from Europe had poor germination and were susceptible to diseases because the United States is mostly further south than European countries.  Enter hybridization or selective breeding for desirable characteristics.  (Burpee created the first hybrid vegetables.)

From his large world-famous plant development facility, their experiments produced the best European vegetables and flowers that had been improved and adapted to American growing conditions.  By the 1890s, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world. 

The early catalogs (Burpee’s Farm Annual) had mostly farm crops including the supplement covering animals and tools.

Luther Burbank, brilliant eccentric wizard of multiple plant crosses, was a cousin.  After Burbank’s death, Burpee acquired the rights to his seeds, experimental work and breeding records.

After W.A. Burpee’s death, his son, David became head of the firm.  Burpee was the innovator of the “War Garden” in WWI and the “Victory Garden” in WWII.   Both credited with bringing seeds and family gardens to America.

Hybridization was emphasized at Burpee bringing an entirely new dimension to horticulture.  (Burpee’s Big Boy tomato, Crenshaw Melon and the Red and Gold Marigold are some of the first.)  

Flowers were David Burpee’s great love and his favorite was the marigold.  The story of his hybridization of marigolds is a long and exciting tale.  Add to that the innovations and experiments of ongoing importance and the list of Burpee introductions fills pages.  Their ability to withstand the changes brought on by wars, isolation, disease and theft has proved valuable.

It was David Burpee who officially enlisted the support of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois in the movement to name the marigold the national flower.  Burpee's marketing methods are lessons for any business to learn.

There are reams of historical documentation on the breeding work done by the Burpee company.  Still more on the shelves of today’s stores with the best of their seeds.

W. Atlee and David Burpee were both civic minded and used their business to help Americans feed their families with the best seeds available.  We should be grateful for those innovations as we plant our seeds and harvest our produce.

By the 1970s, Burpee was regularly introducing new varieties from outside programs as well as their own.  In 1970, David Burpee sold his company to General Food.  In 1979, the company was acquired by ITT.  The Company merged with the George J. Ball, Inc. company in 1991. 

The Smithsonian Gardens (in its Archives of American Gardens) has the business records (including seed catalogs) of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

As with most old seed company catalogs and displays, Burpee’s are very collectable. There are loads of other information out there especially about their own introductions.

1 comment:

  1. Love your series on the seed companies. The artwork is beautiful!