MEMORIES:A Seed Company Retrospective
(Seed World, July 1990) (Lynn Whitmore)
W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Warminister, Pennsylvania
Established in 1876 by Washington Atlee Burpee as a breeder, grower, and retailer of tomato and cucumber seed. The company also sold livestock and feed.
Some of Burpee's history is told in a publication called Midstream Changes by Nathan Aaseng. The publication gives a most interesting account of W. Atlee Burpee, a very gifted individual. - In 1872 an English gentleman visiting in New York City travelled by train to Philadelphia to meet with a poultry breeder he knew only from exchanging letters. Philadelphia was the home of Washington Atlee Burpee, respected by the Englishman for his scholarly reports on poultry breeding.
When the man arrived at the Philadelphia train station, he was greeted by a 14-year-old boy. thinking the boy had been assigned to meet him and escort him to the poultry expert's home, the traveller politely asked the lad's name. The answer gave the Englishman a shock: W. Atlee Burpee! The W. Atlee Burpee.
The story tells about Burpee, the son and grandson of medical doctors, who was born in 1858 in Sheffield New Brunswick. It relates how Burpee, as a young boy raised pigeons, geese, turkeys and chickens, and began publishing research articles on them in trade journals. By the time he was 17, he was selling pedigreed poultry. A poultry breeding business venture with a wealthy backer proved unsuccessful, so Burpee's father loaned him the money to start a mail-order business.
Burpee was only 20 years-old when he published his first catalog from which customers could order pedigreed poultry and livestock. He also offered seeds that customers could use to grow animal feed.
The story tells how Burpee's luck selling purebred animals was little better than it had been before. The seed business, however, was more profitable. The Burpee's 1880 catalog listed tomato and cucumber seeds at a discount price, along with the usual livestock selection. In addition he travelled to Europe, looking for the best seed varieties available.
In 1881, he set up a research station in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There, he compared seeds from Europe with other varieties. Eventually he developed some of his own varieties. Over the years, Burpee introduced several vegetable varieties, including Iceberg lettuce (discovered in 1894), Golden Bantam corn (1902) and Bush lima beans (1907). But until his death in 1915, he never gave up his interest in animal breeding. As the publication points out, "Had selling livestock ever made money for him, we might well be without some of the more popular varieties of vegetables, flowers, and fruits in the world today."