February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Atlee Burpee

Nowhere is a seller's reputation of more paramount importance than the seed business. To the consumer an ill-bred seed looks exactly the blue-ribbon winner. Not until it actually grows months later will the buyer know if he has made a good bargain.

Washington Atlee Burpee never forgot the need to win his customer's trust. He wrote relentlessly in his catalogs about the need for a seed merchant's honesty. At times he even argued against the selling of his own seeds.

At the turn of the century a craze swept America for growing ginseng root to sell to the Chinese trade. Burpee detested such get-rich-quick plotting and angrily fired off a missive in his 1904 catalog admonishing his readers about ginseng root. The plant was devilishly difficult to grow, he wrote, and if it was that easy to make millions of dollars selling ginseng root he would be doing it. But if his customers still wanted to buy ginseng root seed - now knowing the truth - he could sell it in good conscience.

Burpee came to seeds from his days as a poultryman. He became an avian specialist by the age of 14 and in 1874, when he was ready to begin the study of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania at 17, Burpee was actively selling and exhibiting fancy breeds of chickens, geese, turkeys and pigeons. He had already published the first of many authoritative information bulletins, "The Pigeon Loft, How To Furnish and Manage It."

Burpee withdrew from the University of Pennsylvania medical program after one year because he couldn't stand the suffering of patients. In 1875 he offered a line of fowls and livestock by mail order in the 16-page "W. Atlee Burpee's Catalogue of High Class Land and Water Fowls." Seeds were probably first offered as feed for birds. Almost immediately he issued a separate seed catalog he called "Burpee's Farm Annual."

Burpee offered $1.00 worth of vegetable seeds for 25¢ and pushed his introductory deal by offering a $22 sewing machine to anyone buying 300 25¢-boxes. But for the most part he sold his seeds from his Philadelphia area home at premium prices.

Gardens were much more an integral part of American life in the late 1800s than they are today. Not only food and beauty sprouted in the family garden. Garden plants provided medicines, cosmetics, useful household items and even fuel.

Burpee loved seeds and assumed his customers were waiting breathlessly for his new pronouncements on seeds. He put his personal seed beliefs on special pink pages in the front of his catalogs. It was a chatty catalog, often written in flowery longhand, that educated and excited the reader.

He further informed the public with information bulletins. In the early days he wrote the bulletins himself but by the 1880s the seed business had grown so large he had others write the educational pamphlets by offering cash prizes for essay contests. Some were quite extensive: "How and What to Grow in a Kitchen Garden of One Acre" ran 198 pages.

Burpee also sponsored prizes for growing contests and naming new plant varieties grown on his Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. He conducted trials on thousands of vegetables and flowers at Fordhook. Plant breeding was of supreme importance to Burpee who was always seeking the ultimate seed.

In 1905 Burpee received a letter from a California lima bean grower stating he had discovered two new bush lima beans on his property that were so excellent that he was auctioning them to the nation's seedsmen. Burpee paid $1000 for each seed. When he had grown enough to sell bush lima seeds in 1907 Burpee spent six pages glorifying the seed in his catalog.

The bush lima seeds were headliners in Burpee catalogs for decades.
Golden Bantam corn introduced by Burpee in 1912 remains a prized ear of corn. Iceberg lettuce is a produce staple. Perhaps W.A. Burpee's most enduring success was Burpee's Surehead cabbage which was found growing in Europe and first sold in 1877.

W.A. Burpee was exceedingly conservative in his personal habits. He refused both electric lights and telephones at his Fordhook Farms home for years. He did not own a car until a year before his death in 1915, when a liver ailment claimed the world's largest seed merchant at the age of 58.

After his death his family, who continued the business, perpetrated a campaign to name the American marigold, Burpee's favorite, as the country's national flower. Their efforts failed and America continued without an honored flower until Ronald Reagan adopted the rose as the national flower in 1986.

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