Hi, Winnie Griggs here. With the start of the new year I’ve been in a cleaning out and de-cluttering mood. And I’ve been surprised by the number of things I’ve come across that I’d forgotten I had. One of the items is a pretty little tray, with a picture on front that is a reproduction of a picture that was featured in a 1913 Burpee seed catalog. Which got me to wondering, since I know Burpee Seeds are still around, just how long the Burpee Seed Company has been in business. Which naturally gave me an excellent excuse to stop cleaning out my spare room and start in on a little research.
W. Atlee Burpee was born in 1858 into an established Philadelphia family that was descended from French Canadian Huguenots. Both his father and grandfather were physicians and it was expected that Atlee would follow in their footsteps. But Atlee himself had different ideas.
From an early age he had an interest in animals and plants. He started with poultry breeding (chickens, geese, turkeys) but it wasn’t long before he was also working with livestock, dogs and plants. Atlee was fascinated with the still-new and little-respected science of genetics. A man who loved research, Atlee conducted his own experiments, and met with a great deal of success. He corresponded with poultry experts across the world and contributed articles to poultry journals as well.
In 1876, when Atlee was eighteen, he took a loan of $1000, most of which was provided by his mother, and started a mail-order chicken business out of the family home. Because of the success of his breeding experiments and the numerous articles he’d written, many poultry farmers already knew his name and expertise. His business became so successful that he was soon able to open a poultry and feed store in Philadelphia. Because of a growing demand from his customer for quality vegetable seed, by 1878 Burpee had formed W. Atlee Burpee & Company.
But Atlee had a near-obsession with innovation and improvement. And he had the intellect and skills to follow through on this keen interest. In 1877 he was able to introduce a new variety of cabbage he called Surehead, in 1881 he produced an improved carrot, in 1884 it was both an improved celery and a better pepper and in 1887 he produced an improved radish..
In 1888 the company established Foodhook Farms in Doylston, PA to test new flowers and vegetables. This was before the US government had a seed testing or research station of their on.
Atlee traveled extensively through Europe and the US every summer. And much of his travel time was spent visiting farms. When he found flowers or vegetables he thought of as exceptional, he would ship these to Fordhook Farms where they could be tested and crossed with other seed stock to produce hybrids – in fact Foodhook Farms was on the leading edge of this type of seed production.
Although garden seed production became the company’s primary business, Atlee and his successors never forgot the company’s beginnings and it wasn’t until 1940 that live poultry disappeared entirely from the Burpee catalog.
At the time W. Atlee Burpee died in 1915, the company he founded was the largest seed company in the world and was receiving approximately 10,000 orders a day. Burpee’s employed 300 people and was sending out a million catalogs a year.
Atlee was succeeded as head of the firm by his 22 year old son David. It was shortly after David took over the company that World War I began taking a toll on seed production in Europe which pushed America to the forefront of world seed production. David Burpee was one of the forces behind the ‘War Gardens’ movement of WW I. This is what he had to say about it:
Food will win the war , we were told by Washington and I decided the best way I could help our country’s war effort was by showing people how to grow a good share of their food right in their own back yards. To dramatize this, I set up what we called War Gardens in a number of cities. The biggest attention-getter was the one in New York. It was in Union Square, directly opposite an imitation battleship bristling with wooden guns aimed at the tomatoes and cabbages. It was a huge success. I would guess that that garden alone must have started thousands of people gardening.
So, do you have any experience with Burpee’s seeds or their catalog? And was any of this information a surprise to you.
And since, as I said, I’m trying to de-clutter my home, but would like to give some of my ‘treasures’ to folks who will appreciate them, I’m going to give the tray pictured here to one of today’s commenters.