Historical Markers
W. Atlee Burpee [Industries] Historical Marker
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W. Atlee Burpee [Industries]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Burpee Park, Church St., Doylestown

Behind the Marker

Photograph of Atlee Burpee.
W. Atlee Burpee

"In the house of Burpee, Philadelphia has the world's greatest mail order seed business.This wonderful business has been built about a single idea of right service and a direct deal between marker grower and planter."
                                                      The Courier, Brisotal, PA, 1915.

Mail order businesses, such as Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company, allowed millions of rural Americans access to the wide variety of goods being produced in urban factories. In the decades after the Civil War, the country's increasingly dense networks of railroad lines lowered shipping costs so much that national merchants could compete successfully with local ones. In 1876, eighteen-year-old Washington Atlee Burpee started a mail-order chicken business with money loaned to him by his mother. Within a few years he added seeds, which would become the heart of the business.

Burpee Seed Catalogue, 1890 back cover Philadelphia warehouses and the Fordhook Farm outside of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Back cover of the 1890 Burpee Seed Catalogue, showing pictures of its Philadelphia...
At the time of his death in 1915, W. Atlee Burpee and Company was the largest seed company in the world. It mailed out over one million catalogues annually and received thousands of orders per day. Like other mail-order merchants, Burpee had to convince potential customers that he was an honest businessman who sold a quality product. Skeptical farmers were reassured that Burpee guaranteed his seeds for one year. He adopted a simple and straightforward slogan: "Burpee's Seeds Grow." Of course, he had to deliver on his promise of quality. To do this, Burpee scoured the world for superior plants and used controlled experiments to improve them.

He came from a family noted for an interest in science; both his father and grandfather had been physicians. Young Atlee did enroll briefly in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but dropped out to concentrate on his developing interest in selective animal breeding. Starting with chickens, he soon added dogs, hogs, sheep, goats, and calves to his product line. His first vegetable was a new cabbage variety that he introduced in 1877. About this time he began annual purchasing trips to Europe. He went to Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia for vegetables and England for flowers. He soon discovered, however, that these European plants did not thrive in the American climate. To remedy this situation, in 1888 Burpee bought a farm near Doylestown that soon became a renowned plant development facility. Here he systematically adapted European plants to American growing conditions.
A lima bean plant and an open bean spout displays the lima beans that Burpee has for sell.
Front cover, Burpee's Annual Seed Catalog, W. Atlee Burpee and Co, Philadelphia,...

By the 1890s the attractively illustrated Burpee's Farm Annual was carefully read by its largely rural clientele. In 1890, the first 87 pages of the Annual were devoted to vegetables, the next 41 to flowers while a 32-page supplement included animals and farm tools. As the name Burpee became associated with innovative plant varieties, cultivators began to send him interesting specimens that sometimes had commercial potential. In the fall of 1890, Asa Palmer of nearby Chester discovered a thriving bush with three lima beans on it amongst the dead climbers that he normally grew. From these seeds, Burpee developed the prolific bush variety "Fordhook" lima bean.

Image of Burpee female employees working in the seed packing plant.
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Female employees working in the Burpee seed packing plant, circa 1890.
Another important find was Golden Bantam corn grown by Massachusetts farmer William Chambers. At a time when yellow corn was considered suitable only for animal feed, Chambers grew a very sweet variety that became a favorite of local residents. Upon his death, a friend sold a handful of kernels to Burpee, who marketed the variety nationally. To develop plants for western markets, he established Floradale Farms in Santa Barbara County, California, in 1909. Here he created an improved sweet pea, which at the time was the most popular annual flower in American gardens. When World War I prevented Burpee from importing European seeds, he established a number of other farms to produce new plant varieties.

When Atlee Burpee died in 1915, his son David carried on his father's legacy of creative innovation and effective marketing. In the following decades, the younger Burpee expanded the flower business dramatically using hybridization to create exceptionally hardy plants. The tradition of constant innovation, started by Atlee, has insured the success of his company, which still thrives today.
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