Historical Markers
W. Atlee Burpee Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

W. Atlee Burpee

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Burpee Park, Church St., Doylestown

Dedication Date:
October 4, 2000

Behind the Marker

Photograph of Atlee Burpee.
W. Atlee Burpee

"The man who can look upon the seeds and tell which will grow and which will not is one of the world's benefectors.... In the warehouse of the W. Atlee Burpee Company, at Fifth and Buttonwood Streets, is stored in embryo the sustenance of a large portion of the earth's inhabitants, the latent energy that drives the world's marker commerce and industries."

                   Journal of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, February 1915.

In farms across America, nothing quite beat the winter doldrums like the arrival of the new Burpee catalog, as one South Jersey farm boy remembered from his childhood in the 1960s. The bright color pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect vegetables excited and inspired the whole family as they sat around the kitchen table and discussed what they wanted to grow and thought might be interesting to raise. There was so much to choose from!

Grandpa always paid special attention to the cantaloupes, lima beans, and the wide array of pepper and tomato varieties offered for sale. He liked "Fordhook" limas and "Big Boy" tomatoes - they would sell well at the roadside stand. But he always bought a few packets of some different kinds of tomatoes just to try them out. Grandma raised flowers and plants and made bouquets to sell. Celosia, coleus, and zinnias were her choices. After everybody else in the family made his or her selections, Grandpa carefully filled out the form, made his calculations, got a money order for the amount needed and sent it in.
Burpee's Farm Annual Thoroughbred Stock,  1886 cover, showing dog and sheep
Burpee's Farm Annual Thoroughbred Stock, 1886 cover.

When the box of seeds arrived, the farm came to life with a rush of activity. The greenhouse was the center of the action as the coleus, peppers, and tomatoes were planted in flats and nurtured there until they were big enough to be "hardened off" in the cold frame. The rest of the spring was a blur of planting, hoeing, watering, and selling lettuce, radishes and scallions. Summer and fall were spent hoeing, harvesting, and watering cucumbers, flowers, melons, peppers, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, and tomatoes. The seeds grew well and almost invariably lived up to the descriptions in the catalog. After the first frost, the real hustle and bustle was over. As winter set in, they patiently waited for the arrival of the new Burpee seed catalog and the whole process would begin again.

Washington Atlee Burpee was born in Sheffield, part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick, in 1858. When Burpee was a boy, his parents moved to Pennsylvania where he started raising poultry as a hobby. At the age of eighteen, apparently picking up on an exciting new concept pioneered by Chicago's Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872, he started his own mail order business.

In 1876, Burpee borrowed a thousand dollars from his mother and turned his hobby into a mail order poultry business that became well-known in the Northeast. Later, he opened a store in Philadelphia where he sold chickens, geese, turkeys, and feed and seed corn. In response to frequent customer requests for more vegetable seeds, Burpee started the W. Atlee Burpee and Company in 1878. The new business offered beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, peas, onions, and more–and continued to offer poultry into the 1940s. In 1888, he bought the 100-acre Fordhook Farms in Doylestown, which he transformed into a 500-acre experimental agricultural station where he grew and tested new varieties of flowers and vegetables before offering them for sale in his catalog.
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...

Over the next fifteen years, Burpee traveled to farms in the United States and Europe, talking with farmers and picking up plants and seeds of better or different vegetables and flowers. These he then raised on his farm, cross-pollinating them with yet other varieties to create better-producing hybrids. Some of Burpee's creations, including Iceberg lettuce, Fordhook lima beans, and Golden Bantam sweet corn, are still popular today.
A color image of a shucked ear of corn and long green beans.
Front Cover, Burpee's Farm Annual for 1906.

In the late nineteenth century, a majority of Americans still lived in the country and small towns; Burpee tapped into this vast market through his catalog, which was only forty-eight pages long when it first came out. Rural Americans were an eager market for the seeds he developed.

Through advertising, Burpee became a brand name that was linked in the public's mind with reliability. In 1890 his advertising department came up with the slogan "Burpee Seeds Grow." Many backyard gardeners and farmers could attest that the seeds did indeed grow and produce as depicted in the catalog. Burpee himself wrote much of the copy for the catalog.

The arrival of markerRural Free Delivery in 1896, pushed through by department store pioneer and then Postmaster General markerJohn Wanamaker, meant that seed catalog orders could be sent directly to rural Americans' homes. Every year thousands of satisfied customers from across the country wrote to thank Burpee for his flower and vegetable seeds. Although hundreds of farms produced seeds for the company, in 1909 he created two new test farms, Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California to test sweet peas and Sunnybrook Farms near Sweedsboro, New Jersey to test eggplants, peppers, squashes, and tomatoes.

When W. Atlee Burpee died in 1910, his was the largest seed company in the world; at the time, it sent out over a million catalogs and received up to ten thousand orders a day. Son David Burpee diversified and expanded the company's flower seed offerings and in the 1930s increased the production of hybrid varieties. In 1970, he sold the family business to General Foods and nine years later it passed to ITT. George C. Ball, Jr. acquired W. Atlee Burpee and Company in 1991.

Still based in Bucks County, the company has continued to expand and diversify. In addition to a wide variety of hybrids, Burpee offers heirloom seeds, and in 2000, it opened several retail stores - including one in Horsham, Pennsylvania. After a century and a quarter, mail orders from the seed catalog remain the mainstay of the business.
Back to Top