Burpee Seeds – A Short History

wg-logo-picHi, 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 Atleebreeding (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..

ICatalogn 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.Tray

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

37 thoughts on “Burpee Seeds – A Short History”

  1. Hi Winnie, Very interesting! I’ve never heard of the Burpee name or company. I’ll ask my mom and see if she has or my mom in law? I’d never thought about all that goes into flowers, vegetables and chickens. Fun to think of the trey you found had such a neat story attached to it. Jenny

  2. I have heard of and tried Burpee seeds. It’s so easy to take things like a seed for granted. You forget about the time and energy it took to engineer and to create strong, resilient to disease seeds that will produce the ideal product/crop. Thanks for sharing this man’s brilliance.

    Over the years I’ve only been able to manage a small garden due to the time investment involved.

    Your Burpee tray is beautiful! The daisy flower’s colors leap to life. Daisies are so youthful and energetic. They brighten everyone’s day. A perfect way to say I love you or to make someone feel better. I’d treasure your gift.

    Thanks for all the useful information.

    johnslake at usa dot com

    I’ve also tried the Jung family catalog for flowers. I wonder if they have a similar story?

    • Hi Laurie, sounds like you have a green thumb with flowers. Alas I do not. I’ve not even had luck with indoor plants. And I’m glad you like the tray – it’s even prettier in person

  3. I’m not very good at growing anything. I don’t do flowers or any kind of veggies or fruit. But I did find this to be an interesting post.

  4. I’ve heard of Burpee Seeds but I am not a gardener. I love fresh produce and beautiful landscapes but I have always been surrounded by people who loved to garden and are willing to share. My son grows a huge garden every year and although my Mother and father in law have been gone for several years, we still get seed catalogs in their name.

  5. I have heard of Burpee Seeds and last year I planted a flower garden which was successful. Your tray is a beauty. I love small trays which are so pretty and practical for many uses.

    • Glad to hear your first foray into planting seeds met with such success! As for the size of the tray, I don’t have it in front of me, but I’m guessing it’s about 16″ x 10″

  6. I tried planting seeds for the first time ever and the flowers bloomed. What a delightful and sweet tray. That is a treasure which brightens my day.

  7. that is something that i would love,,I didnt have a garden until I moved from TN to VT..and put some tomato seeds in some planters to get started,i let them stay on the sun porch until big enought to plant,,my husbands mother thought I was crazy,that i wouldnt ever get anything from that,but I did! and we got the biggest and best tomatoes from those tiny seeds,,I had to take her some and she said wow those are good where did you get htem,,I said from a seed you said would never grow,,never say never

  8. Seeds are precious and ideal for my backyard. I intend to plant them this Spring. Your tray would be cherished since it is a unique and rare item.

  9. Hi Winnie, I hear ya about the de-clutter mode LOL. Great post. I had no idea Burpee started out in the poultry business! We have a little garden now…most of our “produce” starts off as seedlings from the nursery, but we did plant carrots from seed. Can’t remember if they were Burpee or not, but they grew well. Considering I have a brown thumb LOL. Happy New Year!

  10. I have an interest in this wonderful post since flowers and gardening is my interest. It gives me pleasure during the few months that are warm. A tray that is unique and artistic.

    • Winnie, I have ordered from Burpee seed company all my life but never knew the history. Gave me a nostalgic back home feeling. Thanks for the step back in time moment.

    • Ellie, you must live in cold climes if you only have a few months of warm a year. And it’s great that you have such a strong interest in gardening – it must be very fulfilling to nurture plants from seedlings to harvest.

  11. Living in the Midwest, reading the Burpee seed catalog and dreaming of the gardens we would plant that spring brightened up many a long, cold winter. My mom still keeps a garden at age 85, and we grow herbs and vegetables. I did not know that the company started out as a poultry business.

    • Hi Mary, it sounds like you have a deep connection to gardening and it is amazing to me that your mom is still able to maintain a garden at her age. And didn’t those seed catalogs have absolutely gorgeous pictures in them?

  12. Hi Winnie:Very interesting article. I started my veggie gardening with a small 8 x 10 garden and expanded yearly until the whole side yard was all garden. I don’t garden anymore; the years have ended that “career” but I do like reading about them. Reading is now my nighttime activity and my computer is my daytime activity (I do read sometimes during the day, too.) And by the way, that tray is very nice. Are you sure you want to give it away?

    Ms Leah

    • Hi Ms Leah! Sorry you aren’t able to garden any more – I know you enjoyed it. But reading is always a good replacement hobby 🙂

      And yes, I hate to let the tray go cause it’s so pretty and cheery, but it wasn’t doing me much good stored away so I figure I should find a new home where perhaps it’ll be allowed to come out and shine

  13. Hi Winnie! Thank you for your most interesting post and your great giveaway! I would love to be a winner!

  14. This was very interesting. I have just started having a small garden the last couple of years. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Hi Winnie, Thank you for the information about Burpee Seeds.
    I love their catalog. I think they have the best selection of seeds and plants available.
    I get their catalog every year and look forward to seeing the new seeds they offer. I have even looked at it when I could not plant a garden for some reason!
    I always use their seeds as they grow very well. I just ordered my new catalog last week and I am looking forward to planting a small garden this year.
    Love the tray! Thank you

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