W. Atlee Burpee, born in 1858, grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a prominent physician. As a teenager, the future pioneer in horticulture and mail order took up an unusual hobby: poultry breeding, an interest that extended to the breeding of livestock, dogs, and plants.
In visits to Philadelphia’s libraries, the young Burpee pored over the scientific literature concerning plant and animal breeding. In his mid-teens, having devised his own experiments, he corresponded with English breeders. His research, appearing in English journals, earned him recognition in the field. When visiting the United States, a small group of eminent British breeders paid a visit to the Burpee home. Expecting to exchange information with a peer, they were astonished to learn the breeding expert they sought was 16 years old.
Slated to become a physician, like his father and grandfather, Burpee enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, choosing to leave after two years, with the goal of establishing his own poultry mail order enterprise.
In 1876, when he was eighteen, his mother lent him $1,000 to get him started in business selling chickens, geese, and turkeys. Within a couple of years, the young entrepreneur expanded the company’s product line, breeding and selling dogs, sheep, goats, hogs, and calves.
Four years earlier, in 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward had launched the country’s first large-scale mail order business from Chicago, selling general merchandise to rural Americans who had previously relied on local merchants who often overcharged them for sometimes questionable goods. Burpee followed Ward’s example by offering customers consistent value and quality, backed by a money-back guarantee.
Burpee responded to the needs of his customers, then largely immigrant farmers. After they wrote him that they missed the types and characteristics of vegetables from the old country, Burpee started supplying his customers with seed.
Unlike poultry or livestock, which farmers needed to purchase every five or six years, seeds needed to be purchased yearly: a repeat business that was to transform the company’s fortunes. By the 1880s, the W. Atlee Burpee Company was the fastest growing mail-order seed company in the world, supplying farmers in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and booming Plains States.
During the 1890s, vegetables became Burpee’s most popular offerings, and the company’s customers were increasingly home gardeners, from rural areas, small towns, and the suburbs then emerging outside of cities.
Dubbed "the silent salesman of the world's largest mail-order seed trade,” W. Atlee Burpee himself wrote the copy in the Burpee Annuals. His offerings’ tantalizing names and descriptions were complemented by enticing illustrations.
Burpee emphasized product improvement and innovation. ‘Surehead,’ a new cabbage variety debuting in 1877, was the first of a series of famous introductions, including ‘Iceberg’ Lettuce and the ‘Stringless’ Green Pod Bean (1884), that were to transform American gardening.
‘Iceberg’ lettuce, introduced in 1894, revolutionized the salad industry. The self-packaged, self-cooling variety was the first lettuce that could be shipped long distances, making salad available to Americans year-round for the first time. In tribute, numerous children of farmers were named “Atlee” over the next twenty years.
Burpee changed American horticulture by recognizing the distinct and varied character of the country’s latitudes, landscapes, climates, and growing conditions. He saw that even superior European vegetable varieties, when grown in the United States, did not meet the “Burpee Standard,” his guaranteed measure for quality and performance.
He met the challenge by adapting the European seed stocks he acquired to American growing conditions through selective breeding or hybridization. In 1888, he acquired Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, transforming it into a world-famous plant breeding and testing facility, the first of its kind in the country.
By the 1890s, Burpee was a household name across America, and the largest seed company in the world. The company’s customers were exceptionally loyal, thanks to the dependable performance of its seeds, captured in the famous slogan that first appeared in the early 1890s, and still in use: “Burpee’s Seeds Grow.”
Burpee made sure his company’s products performed as advertised. He had an apology printed in the 1914 catalog, as he believed the cover picture portrayed a tomato larger than a gardener could expect to grow. Later that year, he received snapshots from customers showing equally giant tomatoes they had grown from the variety on the cover.
In the late 1890s, the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) boosted business for Burpee and other mail order outfits. With the new service, U.S. Post Office delivered to and picked up mail from roadside mailboxes in rural areas. Previously, residents of rural areas had to travel to often-remote post offices to get their mail, or pay a private carrier to deliver it.
Before World War I, W. Atlee Burpee traveled more than 30,000 miles each year in the U.S. and Europe on a quest for outstanding vegetables and flowers. On occasion, he found what he was looking for close to home. The ‘Fordhook’ lima bean, the first-ever bush lima bean, introduced in 1907, and still a favorite, was discovered in a home garden in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1890.
‘Golden Bantam’ corn, introduced in the 1902 annual, was another serendipitous find. At the turn of the century, only white corn was considered fit table fare; yellow corn was for livestock and poultry feed. A Massachusetts farmer grew a delicious yellow mutant sweet corn that became locally famous. After purchasing a handful of golden kernels, Burpee bred the first commercially available yellow sweet corn, converting customers by describing it as having a buttery corn flavor, without the expensive butter. ‘Golden Bantam’ became a hit.
In 1913, the U.S. Post Office introduced Parcel Post Service. Welcomed by city dwellers as well, Parcel Post especially benefited farm families, who previously had to visit the nearest express office to ship produce, or receive mail order packages. Now they needed only to travel to their mailboxes to send and receive goods.
On one of his California trips, W. Atlee Burpee visited Luther Burbank, the “wizard of multiple crosses and graftings”. Burbank, a brilliant plant breeder, was a distant cousin of W. Atlee Burpee. At his experimental farm in Santa Rosa, Burbank achieved extraordinary results with potatoes, plums, and berries—as well as outstanding nasturtiums, calendulas and daisies—varieties that Burpee was to eventually acquire and offer.
David Burpee was 22 years old when he became head of the family firm in 1915, following his father’s death. David, who had been studying horticulture at Cornell University, shared W. Atlee Burpee’s passion for research and innovation.
When David took over the leadership of Burpee, it was the largest seed company in the world, mailing over a million catalogs a year, and receiving 10,000 orders a day at its Philadelphia headquarters.
The advent of World War I, however, disrupted the flow of seed supplies from European growers. During the war, David was to open half a dozen regional breeding sites and sales offices in the states and Mexico.
In light of wartime food shortages in the United States, David Burpee saw the company could assist the home front war effort by inspiring Americans to grow much of their food right in their own back yards. To publicize the initiative, Burpee created War Gardens in a number of cities.
The improvement of flowers was a near obsession with David Burpee. The first commercial enterprise to recognize the potential of “F1”, or first generation, hybrids, his company introduced the first successful F1 hybrid flower, the ‘Double Hybrid’ Nasturtium, in 1934.
The new range of hybrid varieties revolutionized flower and vegetable growing, making gardening easier, more productive, and more enjoyable. Through careful, selective hybridization, breeders could create flowers with new colors, more blooms, and longer season, and vegetables with enhanced flavor, higher yields, and greater disease resistance. The new cultivars offered “hybrid vigor”, being hardier and healthier than previous cultivars.
Marigolds were a passion with David Burpee, who brought outsize flair to his role. A strong believer in the sales value of innovation, he introduced the odorless ‘Crown of Gold’ Marigold in 1937, and the first-ever marigold hybrid, the succinctly named ‘Burpee Red and Gold’, in 1939. By 1960, a year when Burpee was mailing 4 million annual catalogs, he had helped marigolds become America’s most popular flower.
In 1959, David Burpee made news when he registered as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., listing as his legislative interest a resolution designating the marigold as the U.S. national flower. He enlisted the support of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who, in 1967, delivered a now-famous speech to the Senate, proclaiming the marigold’s “robustness reflects the hardihood and character of the generations who pioneered and built this land into a great nation.''
World War II brought a renewal and expansion of the Victory Garden movement, again vigorously promoted by David Burpee. While motivated primarily by patriotism, the Victory Garden movement produced a bumper crop of new gardeners, many of them women, who joined the ranks of Burpee customers.
The 1940s were marked by the introduction of new hybrids, including the Burpee Hybrid Cucumber and the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato, both in 1945. ‘Big Boy’ Tomato, one of the most popular tomatoes ever, made its debut in 1949. ‘Big Boy’s one pound-plus size, flavor, aroma, texture, and vigor sparked a new era of tomato breeding.
In the post-war era, Burpee carried on the quest for novel floral hybrids, with often striking results. Burpee is credited with popularizing the zinnia, nasturtium, and petunia, with new hybrids blazing with bold American colors—bright reds, violets, pinks, and yellows—that broke precedent with the more muted European flower palette.
In the prosperous post-war era, Americans enjoyed increased leisure time. Gardening was no longer a matter of necessity, but a pursuit of happiness. Today, 44 percent of American families maintain flower or vegetable gardens, or both.
David Burpee died in 1980, having led the family company for 55 years, and was celebrated for his contributions to horticulture.
During the 1950s and 60s, Burpee began its alliance with another successful horticultural company, George J. Ball, Inc. Founded in 1902, the Ball firm specialized in plants and seeds for greenhouses and the food-processing industry. The Ball Company, like Burpee, was known for breeding novel new varieties, including the ‘Super Elfin’ impatiens and ‘Wave’ spreading petunias.
By the 1980s, the two companies were interdependent, the Ball firm providing a steady stream of innovative varieties, Burpee helping build an ever-growing mail order and retail customer base.
George Ball bought W. Atlee Burpee & Co in 1991 and became the company’s President. Previously, at his family’s seed business, he led international flower seed research and production. Under the new leadership, Burpee headed into the 21st Century with a renewed emphasis on breeding innovative varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that were to bring the company fresh attention and new customers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the company introduced a number newsworthy “firsts,” including ‘African Queen’, the first yellow impatiens cultivar; ‘Roly Poly’, the first perfectly spherical zucchini; ‘Ruby Queen’, the first red sweet corn; and ‘French Vanilla’, the first hybrid white marigold.
The 1990s saw a resurgent interest in heirloom vegetables, prized by aficionados for their old-fashioned flavor. Among the most sought-after heirlooms, usually market varieties from the pre-supermarket era, were Burpee-bred introductions from the late 19th and early 20th century, including the tomatoes ‘Brandywine’, ‘Matchless’, and ‘Quarter Century’; the green beans ‘Tenderpod’, ‘Stringless’, and ‘Bush Lima’, and the first ‘Golden’ beet.
Since 2000, Burpee’s introductions have included ‘Northern Exposure’ tomato, the first 8-ounce Beefsteak-type adapted for short and cool season regions; ‘Purple Blush’, the first “sweet” eggplant; ‘Lady’, the first seed lavender to bloom its first year; and ‘Fourth of July’, the earliest slicing tomato (at 44 days) and the first to ripen by Independence Day.
Burpee has carried on the company tradition of featuring outstanding new tomato varieties, including: ‘Big Mama’ (2003), a practically seedless paste tomato five times the size of ‘Roma’; ‘Brandy Boy’, the world’s first “heirloom hybrid”, and ‘Steakhouse’ (2014), the world’s largest hybrid tomato, averaging 2½ to 3 pounds per fruit.
In the last quarter-century, Burpee has undertaken significant philanthropic initiatives. Working with C.A.R.E., Burpee has supplied vegetable seeds to refugee communities in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, and Afghanistan.
In 2004, Burpee and DHL collaborated on the largest vegetable seed donation in history: delivering 5,000 pounds of onion, squash, and tomato seeds to Iraqi farmers. In the United States, Burpee sponsors educational events and gardening programs at botanical and community gardens, schools, and churches nationwide.
In 2011, Burpee started the “Welcome Home Garden” program, donating seed (with a retail value of $25, producing $1500 of produce) to veterans, service members, and their families.
In April 2015, Burpee donated one million Bee and Butterfly Garden flower seed pouches to support the President’s memorandum regarding the collapse of pollinator colonies. The seeds foster bee-friendly habitats in home and school gardens across the country. These packets were distributed by the White House, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior.
Today Burpee is the world’s largest home garden seed and plant company, growing seed worldwide, and producing spring and fall plants in greenhouses in western Pennsylvania, and with offices and research facilities in the United Kingdom, Holland, and India.
In the 21st century, 140 years after its founding, the company remains faithful to W. Atlee Burpee’s vision, and reflects his passion for innovation, quality, and customer service. The Burpee business is built not for the present only, but with an outlook to the future.
"A business that has no vision of the future or the object of which is mere money-making would not be worth a life's work." W. Atlee Burpee