Washington Atlee Burpee (5 April 1858 – 26 November 1915) was the founder of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company, now more commonly known as Burpee Seeds. Contrary to a natural folk etymology assumption, the company is not named after a relationship to “burpless” cucumbers.
Atlee was born in 1858 in Sheffield, New Brunswick but he moved to Philadelphia as a child, where his father practiced medicine. Both his father and grandfather were prominent in medicine. At fourteen, Atlee was already actively breeding chickens, geese and turkeys. A skilled breeder, he corresponded with poultry experts worldwide and wrote scholarly articles in poultry journals. In 1876, an 18-year-old Atlee started a mail-order chicken business out of the family home with $1,000 (equal to $22,147 today) loaned to him by his mother and a partner. Poultry farmers from the Northeast already knew of his talents, and he soon opened a store in Philadelphia, selling poultry and also corn seed for poultry feed. It wasn’t long before his customers started requesting cabbage, carrot, cauliflower and cucumber seeds. In 1878, Burpee dropped his partner and founded W. Atlee Burpee & Company. The company soon switched to primarily garden seed, but live poultry wasn’t dropped from the Burpee catalog until the 1940s.
By 1888, the family home, Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was established as an experimental farm to test and evaluate new varieties of vegetables and flowers, and to produce seeds. Before World War I, Atlee spent many summers traveling through Europe and the United States, visiting farms and searching for the best flowers and vegetables.
Atlee shipped many of the vegetables and flowers he found to Fordhook Farms for testing. Those plants that survived were bred with healthier types to produce hybrids better suited to the United States. Fordhook Farms was the first laboratory to research and test seeds in this way. Fordhook Farms specialized in testing onions, beets, carrots, peas and cabbage.
In 1909, Burpee established Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California, to test sweet peas, and Sunnybrook Farms near Swedesboro, New Jersey, to test tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squashes. In his travels, Atlee met Asa Palmer, a Pennsylvania farmer who raised beans, and who thought he had one plant that was resistant to cutworms. Burpee turned this bean plant into what is now known as the Fordhook lima bean, one of the company’s most famous items.
Another successful plant was the Golden Bantam sweet corn that the farmer William Chambers of Greenfield, Massachusetts, had grown before his death. A friend of Chambers found some of the sweet corn seeds and sold Burpee seeds of the corn, and in 1902, Golden Bantam was featured in a Burpee catalog. Before 1900 most people thought that yellow corn was fit only for animals, so in order to change their customers’ minds, many farmers slipped Golden Bantam corn in with the white corn they were selling. Within a few years, people in the United States were converted to yellow corn.
Iceberg lettuce was introduced by Burpee in 1894. It was named for its crispness.
A key in Burpee’s business was the 1863 free delivery system that required post offices to deliver mail to residents’ homes and in 1896, free delivery was extended to rural areas. This allowed his catalogs to be delivered directly to people’s homes. Thousands of letters were received annually from Burpee’s customers thanking him for his seeds. Burpee knew that the key to his business was advertising and the catalog was his advertising medium.
In his first year of business, his catalog was 48 pages, but by 1915 his catalogs were 200 pages and he distributed a million catalogs. Burpee personally wrote most of the copy of his catalogs. Burpee set up an advertising department and offered cash prizes for the best advertisements. This competition is what originated the slogan “Burpee Seeds Grow” in 1890. The 1891 catalog was the first to feature engravings made from photographs, and by 1901 this process was done by machines. Burpee’s move to photography changed the whole industry and the hand-drawn illustration in catalogs disappeared. In another break with tradition, Burpee eliminated cultural information and put in testimonial letters and plant descriptions.
At Burpee’s death in 1915, the company had 300 employees, and it was the largest seed company in the world. At that time the Burpee company distributed over 1 million catalogs a year and received 10,000 orders a day.