Archives of American Gardens

W. Atlee Burpee & Company records

Collection ID:
W. Atlee Burpee Company
Burpee, W. Atlee (Washington Atlee), 1858-1915
Burpee, David, 1893-1980
James Vick's Sons (Rochester, N.Y.).
Wm. Henry Maule (Firm)
circa 1873-1986
bulk 1890-1930
Physical Description:
201 Cubic feet
The W. Atlee Burpee & Company records, dated circa 1873-1986, document the firm's business activities developing plant varieties and marketing and selling seeds. They include accounting records, seed trial records, seed contracts, sales records, inventories, office correspondence, seed catalogs, promotional and instructional materials, advertisements and advertising reports, contest letters, daybooks, photographs, reference materials, and other items relating to the company and some of its competitors.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
This collection documents W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a mail-order seed company based in Philadelphia, from its early beginnings in 1876 when its founder, W. Atlee Burpee, started in the agricultural business, to the 1970s when his son, David Burpee, sold the family's then-global company. The collection also includes personal papers of the Burpee family dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Business-related content in the collection consists of crop propagation and management records; company correspondence; administrative and personnel records; advertising files; legal papers; property records and plans; reports, studies, and technical data; notes and drafts; files on professional outreach activities and events; trade literature (published by both the Burpee company and a number of its competitors); and awards and certificates received by the company. Significant topics documented in these files include the development of notable flower and vegetable novelties introduced by the company; the impact of World Wars I and II on gardening and the global seed trade; advertising strategies, technology, and innovation; and David Burpee's involvement in the national floral emblem congressional debate.
The Burpee family papers consist of personal files unrelated to the company's business operations. This includes records generated by W. Atlee's father (David Burpee, 1827-1882) and grandfather (Washington L. Atlee, 1808-1878), as well as W. Atlee's wife, Blanche (1863-1948); David Burpee (1893-1980) and his wife, Lois (1912-1984); and W. Atlee Burpee II (1894-1966). There are genealogical surveys conducted on both the Atlee and Burpee families as well as clippings about family members. W. Atlee and David Burpee's series are the most extensive and cover their involvement with numerous clubs and societies such as the Canadian Society of Philadelphia, the Union League of Philadelphia, and, for David Burpee, his involvement with Pearl S. Buck's Welcome House charity. The series include personal correspondence; financial, accounting, and tax records; files generated during vacations; reference material; and will and estate papers.
The Burpee collection also has a large number of images related to the Burpee business and family in a variety of formats including photographs, film and glass plate negatives, and advertisement mock-ups. Other formats include architectural and site plans, original artwork for advertisements, films, cassettes, audio tapes, and ephemera.

Collection is arranged into six series:
  • Series 1: Plant/Farm Related Material
  • Series 2: Business Records
  • Series 3: Material Published About the Burpee Company
  • Series 4: Awards and Certificates
  • Series 5: Photographic and A/V Materials
  • Series 6: Burpee Family Papers

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) began a mail-order poultry and livestock business in 1876 in Philadelpia, which he soon expanded to include corn seed for chicken feed. In 1878, he founded W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the primary focus of which was to sell vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds through the mail. This company would go on to become one of the most notable seed distributors in the United States.
By 1888, Burpee's family home, Fordhook Farms, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was established as an experimental farm to test and evaluate new varieties of vegetables and flowers, and to produce seeds. Burpee spent many summers traveling throughout the United States and Europe, visiting farms and searching for the best flowers and vegetables; certain plants he found were shipped to Fordhook Farms for testing. Plants that survived were bred with healthier specimens to produce heartier hybrids that were more resistant to disease. Other Burpee trial gardens were established in Lompoc, California and near Swedesboro, New Jersey.
Burpee's son David took over the family business upon his father's death in 1915. At that time, the Burpee Company had 300 employees and was the largest mail order seed company in the world. It distributed over one million catalogs a year and received as many as 10,000 orders a day. In response to food shortages caused by World War I, the Burpee Company helped promote a "war gardens" campaign that evolved into a "victory gardens" campaign during World War II. Both were aimed at city dwellers and instructed them on how to grow vegetables for their own consumption to aid in the war effort.
Sometime in the 1930s, the Burpee Company entered into a business relationship with the James Vick's Company of Rochester, New York. In 1947, Burpee purchased the assets of and rights to the use of the name of the Wm. Henry Maule Co. In 1970, Burpee was sold to General Foods; the corporate headquarters moved from Philadelphia to Warminster, Pennsylvania in 1974. David Burpee remained a consultant for the company until his death in 1981. In 1991, the Burpee Company was acquired by George J. Ball, Inc.

Processing Information
The collection was originally processed by Marca Woodhams of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Horticulture Branch; she generated a box list at that time. Archives of American Gardens' intern Candace Graham developed a finding aid for the collection in 2002. The finding aid was revised by AAG museum specialist Joyce Connolly in 2019 after the collection was re-inventoried.
Existence and Location of Copies
Copies of numerous Burpee publications including seed catalogs and trade literature are found in other public repositories and special collections. Many of these publications have been digitized and are available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library at .

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access
Access to original archival materials by appointment only. Researcher must submit request for appointment in writing. Certain items may be restricted and not available to researchers. Please direct reference inquiries to the Archives of American Gardens:
Conditions Governing Use
Archives of American Gardens encourages the use of its archival materials for non-commercial, educational and personal use under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law. Use or copyright restrictions may exist. It is incumbent upon the researcher to ascertain copyright status and assume responsibility for usage. All requests for duplication and use must be submitted in writing and approved by Archives of American Gardens. Please direct reference inquiries to the Archives of American Gardens:
Preferred Citation
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.

Related Materials
Burpee seed catalogs donated to the Smithsonian in 1982 by the W. Atlee Burpee Co. can be found in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives' Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History.
The Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division includes a series of images of Burpee company operations taken in 1943.
The Black Gold Cooperative Library System's Asian/Pacific - Americans on the Central Coast Collection includes images dated 1933-1939 of Japanese employees of the Burpee Co. working at Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Seed industry and trade Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Mail-order business Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Gardens -- United States Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Business Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Agriculture Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Horticulture Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Advertising Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Vegetables Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Flowers Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Trial gardens Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Victory gardens Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Contests Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Business records Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Correspondence Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Account books -- 19th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Account books -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Pamphlets Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Trade catalogs Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
Archives of American Gardens
P.O. Box 37012
Capital Gallery West, Suite 3300, MRC 506
Washington, DC 20013-7012