In the spring of 1876, W. Atlee Burpee, a young medical student, visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A tribute to the country’s first hundred years, the exhibits showcased marvels like the telephone and a massive sculpture of a torch-bearing arm—soon to be part of the Statue of Liberty. The 18-year-old Burpee gravitated to the halls dedicated to agriculture and horticulture, where he made a decision that would change American gardens forever.
Atlee was born in 1858 to a well-established family in Philadelphia, where his father and grandfather were prominent physicians. At just 14, Atlee demonstrated a passion for poultry-breeding—devising experimental breeding programs, writing scholarly articles, and corresponding with prominent European breeders. One day several English poultry experts arrived at the Burpee home and were astonished to find that the learned expert with whom they had been corresponding was 16 years old.
On leaving medical school in 1876, Atlee established his own mail-order poultry and livestock company. He began by breeding and selling chickens, dogs, and sheep. When his livestock customers told him that they needed a reliable source for quality seed, he was quick to oblige. By 1877, his second year in business, Atlee set about reshaping his enterprise into the celebrated seed company we know today.
History of Innovation
Atlee Burpee & Company was notably different from any other seed business. It was the first research-based seed company in the United States. A year after he went into business, Burpee offered a high-performing new cabbage variety called ‘Surehead’. In 1881, he introduced an improved carrot called ‘Long Orange’, followed by new and improved garden and Lima bean, celery and sweet pepper varieties throughout the 1880s. In 1894, Atlee brought to market a revolutionary lettuce that stayed crisp far longer than other varieties, the now world-famous ‘Iceberg’. Year-round salads suddenly appeared in both homes and restaurants.
From the beginning, Atlee Burpee seized on a new retail idea, the mail-order catalogue. Light and compact, seeds were perfectly suited for delivering to rural America. Since most of Atlee’s customers were farmers rather than home gardeners, he named his catalogue “Burpee’s Farm Annual”. Still in his twenties, Atlee was running the world’s fastest-growing mail-order seed company.
In that era, American seed companies relied on European breeders for most of their seed varieties. From his research work and correspondence with customers, Burpee concluded that European-bred seeds were incompatible with American soil and climate conditions. Determined to rectify the situation, Atlee set about breeding vegetables in America well-adapted for American gardens.
In 1888, Atlee purchased a farmstead of several hundred acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that he named Fordhook Farm. Within a few years, Fordhook Farm was transformed into a world-famous showcase of experimental gardens that developed outstanding new varieties for American farmers and home gardeners. The farm served as the Burpee family home, an outdoor laboratory for horticultural innovation and a magnet for visiting horticulturalists from around the world. By the 1890s, Burpee was a household name. In 1915, the 200-page Burpee catalog was sent to a million American gardeners.
The keys to Burpee’s success were clear, the company bred and offered vegetables that were different and better than competing varieties, and the seeds arrived by mail.
Atlee insisted on quality and excellence in all aspects of the company. Burpee seeds and products were backed by a guarantee: if customers were not satisfied with their purchase, Burpee replaced the seeds up to an entire year after the date of purchase. Burpee’s commitment to quality was succinctly expressed in a motto introduced in the 1890s and still in use, Burpee Seeds Grow.
While vegetables were Atlee’s passion, flowers increasingly accounted for a large share of the burgeoning mail-order market. Atlee established Floradale Farms in southern California to develop and grow seeds of a wide range of new ornamental varieties.
Atlee’s son, David, shared his passion for plant genetics. David was 19, and just starting to study horticulture at Cornell University, when his father became ill. He returned home to help manage the family business. After W. Atlee Burpee died in 1915, 22-year-old David found himself head of the largest seed company in the world.
Continuing a Legacy
When David took charge of the Burpee company, Europe was ensnared in World War I. The war disrupted international trade in many areas, including the seed business. David responded by opening half a dozen new regional breeding and seed production sites and sales offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
Atlee had been a vegetable man, always developing and improving varieties; David Burpee’s great love was flowers. David’s hallmark work was developing ornamental hybrids, many becoming household names, including the first successful first-generation hybrid flower ‘Double Hybrid Nasturtium’ (1934), the first fully-double Gloriosa Daisy (1953) and the first-ever White Marigold, ‘Snowbird’ (1975).
During the World War II years, amid the Victory Garden movement, Burpee breeders focused on developing vegetables exceptionally suited for home gardeners. The war saw the introduction of the ‘Burpee Hybrid Cucumber’ and the ‘Fordhook Hybrid Tomato’. After the war, the ‘Big Boy’ tomato, introduced in 1949 was a trailblazer, and is the ancestor of all of today’s best home garden varieties.
In the 1950s, Burpee research spawned beautiful new strains of petunias, marigolds, snapdragons, daisies and zinnias. It has been said that Burpee—and David Burpee, a horticultural showman—helped make these flowers ever-popular classics in American gardens.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Burpee company became allied with another horticultural enterprise, George J. Ball, Inc. By the 1980s, the two companies had become interdependent, underscoring Burpee’s commitment to offering only the best, from whatever source. George Ball bought W. Atlee Burpee & Company in 1991 and became the company’s President. Under new leadership, Burpee headed toward the 21st century breeding innovative vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers that were to bring the company fresh attention and new customers.
In the 1990s, the company introduced many notable firsts including tomatoes, ‘Northern Exposure’ for cooler regions and ‘Heatwave’ for hotter ones, ‘African Queen’, the first yellow impatiens, ‘Ruby Queen’, the first red sweet corn, and ‘Roly-Poly’, the first perfectly round zucchini. The 1990s also saw a resurgent interest in heirlooms, prized for their old-fashioned flavor. Among the most sought-after heirlooms were Burpee-bred introductions from the late 19th and early 20th century, including tomatoes ‘Brandywine’, ‘Matchless’, and ‘Quarter Century’, the green beans ‘Tenderpod’, ‘Stringless’, and ‘Bush Lima’, and the first ‘Golden’ beet.
New Since 1876
Since 2000, Burpee has been faithful to the company’s heritage of introducing innovative tomato varieties, including ‘Fourth of July’, the earliest slicing picnic tomato, ‘SuperSauce’, a scrumptious, practically seedless paste tomato six times the size of ‘Roma’, ‘Brandy Boy’, the world’s first “heirloom hybrid”, and ‘Steakhouse’, the world’s largest hybrid tomato, a phenomenon averaging 2½ to 3 pounds per fruit.
Burpee remains at the forefront of the new and spectacular. Food lovers clamor for more delicious flavors and textures; flower gardeners seek out eye-catching blooms they’ve never seen before. Since 1876, through good times and bad, Burpee has been a beacon of excellence for American gardeners. Today, when we are surrounded by amazing technological wonders, nothing compares to the enchantment of planting a seed and watching it grow into something marvelous.
Today, Burpee is one of the world’s foremost home garden seed and plant companies. We breed and grow plants and produce seed worldwide at our locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, and India.
“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