W. Atlee Burpee & Co. History
Warminster, Pennsylvania 18974
Telephone: (215) 674-4900
Fax: (215) 441-0647
Employees: 250 (est.)
Sales: $100 million (1998 est.)
SICs: 0181 Ornamental Nursery Products; 5191 Farm Supplies; 5961 Catalog & Mail-Order Houses
Burpee provides horticultural and consumer-related products to home gardeners, selected commercial growers, and general retail consumers in North America through direct mail, commercial-nursery, and retail-store outlets. Burpee emphasizes new product development, excellent customer service, and responsible environmental practices. Burpee strives to make gardening easier and more rewarding for all its customers.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a private family-owned company founded in Philadelphia in 1876 by 18-year-old W. Atlee Burpee, has been the leading U.S. seed supplier for over 120 years. Although purchased by General Foods during their acquisition spree in the early 1970s, Burpee once again came into family hands in 1988. The company has bred more flowers and vegetables for American gardeners than all other seed companies combined. Before Burpee, U.S. seed companies were founded and run by large agricultural landowners who grew extra amounts of their main crops for seed; few new products entered the market in those days. Burpee was the first "modern" seed company based entirely on plant breeding and product innovation. David Burpee, Atlee's son, was the first commercial horticulturist to recognize the potential of hybridization; with his colleagues David revolutionized the growing of flowers and of vegetables. In 1991, George J. Ball, Inc. (Ball)--another successful horticultural company that was one of Burpee's major breeding partners--merged with Burpee. George Jacob Ball was a breeder of sweet peas, asters, and calendulas. His grandson, George Ball, Jr., now serves as Burpee's president and CEO. Currently, Burpee has the largest private seed-testing laboratory in the United States and continues to maintain experimental/developmental stations in Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, and Florida. Burpee sells seeds of over 500 vegetable and herb varieties and 600 kinds of flowers. Many heirloom vegetables and flowers are available as transplants. The company also offers a rich assortment of perennial plants, bulbs for spring and for summer, fruits, shrubs, vines, and trees. Flowers account for approximately half of the company's sales. Additionally, Burpee sells seed-starting supplies, gardening tools, accessories, even greenhouses. Since 1876 Burpee has guaranteed all its products to the full amount of the purchase price. Within a year of purchase, unsatisfied customers may ask for a replacement or a refund.
Early Farming and Gardening: 1876-87
When the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition opened on May 10, 1876, "the United States was still recovering from the cataclysmic upheaval of the Civil War, the agonies of Reconstruction, and a severe economic depression," wrote Robert Elman in a short biography titled "The Legacy of W. Atlee Burpee." However, Elman went on to say, for many Americans, the industrial revolution and westward expansion generated "an almost unrestrained optimism--faith in scientific, social, and cultural progress resulting from self-reliant, individual achievement." When 18-year-old W. Atlee Burpee (Burpee was the Americanized form of the French Canadian Huguenot Beaupé) went to the Exposition, like many others he marveled at electric arc lights and many other mechanical and industrial exhibits but was especially fascinated by displays of agricultural advances. The young man's hobby already had expanded from his early breeding of poultry to the breeding of livestock, dogs, and plants.
By the mid-19th century, the crucial genetic experiments of Gregor Johann Mendel (the Father of Modern Genetics) and Charles Darwin's comments on selective breeding were beginning to appear in scientific publications and were available in major libraries in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Elman commented that young Atlee was an avid researcher and in all probability "was familiar with Mendel's famous 1866 report entitled Experiments with Plant Hybrids as well as with reports by the very active British breeders of livestock, poultry, grains, and vegetables." As early as during his mid-teens, Atlee corresponded with English breeders and quickly received recognition when reports on his experiments were published in England.
Atlee's father was a surgeon and hoped his son would choose the same professional career but Atlee disliked his studies at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and braved Dr. Burpee's anger by dropping out. His sympathetic mother, however, loaned Atlee $1,000 to start his own business for breeding poultry. For about two years the W. Atlee Burpee Company was quite successful; then, the need for repeat business and for a product that could be shipped more easily resulted in Atlee's beginning to breed dogs (especially an excellent strain of border collies), hogs, sheep, goats, and even calves. It was not long before the young entrepreneur realized that shipping feed and seed would not only be less expensive than shipping animals but would also be marketable to immigrant farmers who yearned for vegetables like those of "the old country."
Atlee had always been preoccupied with improvement and innovation. His belief that European growers had the key to quality led him to tour Europe every year to take notes and to obtain seed stock from German, Dutch, and Scandinavian vegetable breeders (recognized as the best in that field) and from state-of-the-art English breeders of flowers. He corresponded with foreign breeders who came to visit him and exchanged mail-order catalogues with them. By the 1880s, the Burpee Company was the world's fastest-growing mail-order company; it supplied the Northeast and the Midwest with seed and livestock.
Developing Seeds for America: 1888-1915
In 1888, Atlee bought the Fordhook farm, near Doylestown, Pennsylvania; here he used selective breeding to create what became internationally known as a plant development facility for improving and adapting the best European vegetables and flowers to growing conditions in the United States. By the 1890s, the Burpee Company was the largest seed company in the world; it also had introduced a new cabbage variety, called Surehead; an improved carrot, called Long Orange; better varieties of celery, peppers, and radishes; Iceberg lettuce; and the Stringless Green Pod Bean. A simple, forthright slogan, which the company kept as its motto, expressed the reliability of the seeds: "Burpee's Seeds Grow."
Occasionally, it was during his travels in the United States that Atlee found seeds to produce superior vegetables and flowers. For instance, he bought seeds for the first Bush Lima Beans from Asa Palmer--a Chester, Pennsylvania farmer who had obtained three seeds from an unusual plant in his lima bean garden: it had three little pods each of which contained one bean. Asa planted the three beans the following season: two of them grew into low bushes bearing a generous yield of lima beans. Until then lima beans had been grown only on poles. Asa sold the seeds to Atlee, and by 1907 the bush lima bean, named "The Fordhook," was the home gardener's favorite. "Lima bean aficionados," said biographer Elman, spoke of "being 'Fordhooked."'
A similar case was that of Golden Bantam Corn. Originally, yellow corn was used only as feed for livestock and poultry; civilized people ate white corn. But William Chambers of Greenfield, Massachusetts, developed a yellow mutant sweet corn that became locally famous. At Chambers's death, one of his friends sold a handful of the mutant's yellow kernels to Atlee. The result was that Golden Bantam, the first yellow sweet corn, was listed in the Burpee Catalogue in 1902. During the Burpee Company's early years, most of its customers were farmers rather than gardeners; in fact, the first Burpee catalogs were called Burpee's Farm Annual. In 1890 vegetables were featured on the first 87 pages, flowers in the next 41 pages, and a 32-page supplement covered the availability of collie dogs, poultry, hogs, sheep, farm and garden tools, and a few late-entry flowers and vegetables. Flowers, nevertheless, accounted for a large part of the mail-order market.
Eager to provide better service to the western part of the country, Atlee in 1909 established Floradale Farms at Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County, California. This site, in a valley protected by a mountain range, had an ideally cool temperature exempt from great fluctuations; it was constantly humid and not subject to heavy sporadic rains. Lompoc--like Erfurt in Germany, East Anglia in the United Kingdom, and certain valleys in Kaskmir, India&mdash-dured as one of the world's best places for the production of outdoor flower seeds. Atlee also wanted to produce hardy seeds for cool weather agricultural and floral crops, especially sweet peas--one of the early 20th century's favorite annual garden flowers. During the following decades the company added other breeding and growing facilities, mainly in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, northern California, and Costa Rica.
While in California Atlee visited his cousin, Luther Burbank--already famous for his multiple crossbreedings, graftings, and production of outstanding potatoes, plums, berries, and many ornamental plants. The cousins knew of each other's work and established a close relationship. When Atlee died in 1915, his company was mailing a million catalogs a year. His 22-year-old son, David, became head of the company and maintained close ties with Luther Burbank, who had started a small seed company. When Burbank died in 1926, David bought his company and acquired the rights to the seeds as well as to his cousin's experimental work--including the breeding records, or "stud book"--and added Burbank's splendid flowers and vegetables to the Burpee line.
World Wars and the Seed Industry: 1915-45
David (known as D.B.) managed the company only a short time before World War I almost completely shut down availability of the European seeds used for selective breeding at Burpee's experimental facilities. At that time Germany was a major producer of seeds&mdash well as a world center of plant research. Burpee also relied on seeds from France, Holland, and especially from England. Fortunately, Atlee's foresight of trade disruptions caused by wars had led him to establish Floradale Farms in California to develop seeds suited to the U.S. climate. Following in his father's footsteps, David opened six other regional breeding sites and sales offices in the United States and Mexico during World War I. In "The Legacy," Elman quoted from David Burpee's notes to illustrate how the young man dedicated his professional skill to meeting his country's needs: "'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." Burpee continued, "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."
Thus, the "War Gardens" of World War I planted the idea of the "Victory Gardens" that became so popular during World War II. In the intervening years D.B. gradually departed from the selective breeding in vogue with horticulturists until the late 1930s in order to practice hybridization (crossbreeding). He found that crossing two strains of the same species or of different species created an entirely new product that was stronger-growing and more disease-resistant than either of its parents. According to "The Legacy," D.B. became "a leading expert in hybridization, his greatest contribution to American plant development, and was the first commercial horticulturist to recognize the potential of hybrids. His firm was to gardening what Macintosh was to the development of personal computers." Working with his colleagues, D.B. developed the first successful hybrid flower, the Double Hybrid Nasturtium (1934). Then came the 1937 introduction of the Burpee Red and Gold Hybrid Marigold.
In fact, marigolds were D.B.'s favorite flowers and remained Burpee's most popular flower seeds. In a search for an odorless marigold (some people did not like the terpene odor emitted by marigold foliage), D.B. bought seeds from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. But not until he received seeds from Reverend Carter D. Holton, who had discovered an odorless marigold in China, did Burpee succeed in producing an odorless plant bursting with shimmering golden blossoms, which yielded the seeds that brought about production of the Crown of Gold Marigold.
A significant horticultural innovation occurred in the 1940s when Burpee's experimental breeders began to "shock" the chromosome structures of flowers with tiny amounts of colchicine, a poisonous alkaloid obtained from the autumn crocus, and thereby empowered the plants to emerge in dramatic new forms. Snapdragons&mdash+ants especially inclined to benefit from colchicine--burst forth in dazzling colors, as in the Bright Scarlet and the Rosabel versions of the Super Terra Snapdragons. Researchers also used colchicine to transform the wildflower known as the Black-Eyed Susan into the garden flower called the Gloriosa Daisy, and to produce the seven-inch-diameter blossoms of the Ruffled Jumbo Scarlet Zinnia.
Postwar Years and the Hybrid Revolution: 1945-89
World War II brought about many changes in everyday life, including farming and gardening. While adult males served in the armed forces, labor shortages drew more women than ever into the workforce but, motivated by patriotism, food shortages, and the tight economy, these women and their children tended Victory Gardens. During the years of the Great Depression, many farmers had moved to cities in search of better-paying jobs; they, too, tilled Victory Gardens. The Burpee breeders turned their attention to producing vegetables ideally suited to home gardening. Two outstanding results in 1945 were the Burpee Hybrid Cucumber and the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato. In 1949 came Burpee's legendary Big Boy Tomato, which remained a popular favorite and was the ancestor of all the best tomato varieties that followed.
With the coming of peaceful times, a strong economy, and the end of food shortages, city and suburban gardeners turned their Victory Gardens into pleasure gardens where, as hobbyists, they cultivated flowers as well as vegetables. As the quest for floral hybrids intensified, Burpee breeders brought forth beautiful new strains of marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, and snapdragons&mdashø name but a few hybrids. As a matter of fact, Burpee breeders had basically invented marigolds and zinnias from seeds of Central American wildflowers. The Burpee company diversified and pioneered the bedding-plant industry and saw sales of its "color packet" retail business soar to new heights.
During the next 20 years, Burpee worked closely with another horticultural company, George J. Ball, Inc. (Ball). This firm, founded in 1902 outside of Chicago by George Jacob Ball, initially supplied cut and pot flowers to florists, and later expanded its sales to greenhouses and the food-processing industry; for instance, Ball supplied varieties of tomatoes that best suited the manufacturing of tomato paste and ketchup. By mid-century, Ball was an important producer of seeds for both flowers and vegetables. In the 1970s, Ball and its subsidiary--PanAmerican Seeds--also were major suppliers of many of Burpee's new varieties, especially the impatiens, which Burpee thought a major breakthrough for gardeners. Ball pioneered ever better varieties of dwarf impatiens and produced colorful modern varieties, such as the Super Elfin, the bold orange Tango, winner of the All-America Award, and the African Queen--the world's first yellow impatiens for the garden. Impatiens, virtually unknown in the mid-19th century, became the nation's most popular bedding plant: American gardeners needed color for shade, and the impatiens was an instantaneous hit. By the 1980s, Burpee and Ball had become interdependent. Ball supplied an ever increasing number of new products while Burpee won over an ever growing number of eager home gardeners.
Toward the 21st Century: 1990 and Beyond
The companies merged in 1991. George Ball, Jr., who was ardently involved in flower development, came from his firm's research-and-production department to become president and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. and be the driving force behind the development of new colors and larger, more graceful plants better suited to naturalistic garden design. By the end of the 1990s, the company stocked seed for more than 500 different vegetable and herb varieties and over 600 kinds of flowers, including the largest selection of heirloom vegetables and flowers available anywhere. Many of the most popular flowers and vegetables also were available as custom-grown transplants (known as Sure Start Plants). These were shipped by express mail to arrive on Thursday or Friday for weekend planting at the right planting date for a customer's climate zone. To assure compatibility of climate and to eliminate risk, these Sure Starts were grown in four locations across the country. In 1998 Burpee introduced Ruby Queen, a hybrid sweet corn with deep red kernels. It took five years for plant geneticists to bring pink-kerneled corn through ten generations to achieve Ruby Queen's deep red. By 1999 Burpee offered 175 new and bestselling flowers and vegetables as plants, including 61 old-fashioned vegetable and flower varieties.
Burpee's seeds and seed kits could be found in most good hardware stores and garden centers across the country. The company's retail racks offered a select line that varied according to region and from store to store, sometimes presenting up to 500 different varieties of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. These seed packets included such unique selections as a sunflower garden, a wide range of perennials, and the first-ever bilingual Spanish/English assortment featuring varieties of Latin American heritage. Burpee's full product line--including seed starting supplies, greenhouses, and gardening tools and accessories--was available through its catalogs, of which six very different versions were published between November and July of every year--and from its Online Catalog at the Burpee web site. By this time, Burpee was mailing a total of approximately six million catalogs a year.
The company's authoritative reference guides (some of which are listed below) offered gardeners comprehensive and in-depth information from gardening experts on essential and timely gardening topics. In addition, a "3D Virtual Garden Tour" was available to visitors of Burpee's web site. As the 21st century drew near, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. continued its quest for the highest possible quality of seeds, remained dedicated to conscientious service, and strove for steady improvement of an always expanding selection of flowers and vegetables that "made gardening easier and more rewarding" for its customers.
- Bales, Suzanne Frutig, The Burpee American Gardening Series, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.
Burpee Basics, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1998-99.
Burpee 3d Garden Designer & Encyclopedia (CD-ROM), New York: Macmillan Digital Publishing Company, 1998.
- Cutler, Karan D., et al, Burpee Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1997, 416 p.
- Elman, Robert, "The Legacy of W. Atlee Burpee," Burpee Home Gardener Magazine, Winter/Spring 1996; reprinted as a separate booklet, Warminster, Penn.: W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 15 p.
- Hefferman, Maureen, Burpee Seed Starter: A Guide to Growing Flower, Vegetable, and Herb Seeds Indoors and Outdoors, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1997, 224 p.
- Hefferman, Maureen, et al, Burpee Complete Gardener: A Comprehensive, Up-to-Date, Fully Illustrated Reference for Gardeners at All Levels, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1995, 432 p.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 27. St. James Press, 1999.