Washington Atlee Burpee was born April 5, 1858 in Sheffield, New Brunswick Canada.
As a child his family moved to Philadelphia where his father practiced medicine.
Then, as a teenager, he became interested in breeding poultry and by the age of 18 had started a successful mail-order chicken business out of his parents home.
Eventually, he opened a store in Philadelphia selling poultry as well as corn seed for poultry feed.
Before long, his customers began requesting cabbage, carrot, cauliflower and cucumber seeds.
In 1878, at the age of 20, he founded W. Atlee Burpee & Company and began to focus less on poultry and more on garden seeds.
In his first year of business, the Burpee Seed catalog was 48 pages.
A key to Burpee’s mail order business was the 1863 free delivery system that required post offices to deliver mail to residents’ homes.
After ten years of steady growth, he established an experimental farm on his parents Fordhook Farm to test and evaluate new varieties of vegetables and flowers as well as to grow his own seeds.
Burpee personally wrote most of the copy for his catalogs. He 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 Burpee Seed catalog was also the first to feature engravings made from photographs.
His move to photography changed the entire mail order industry as hand-drawn illustrations in catalogs disappeared.
In another break with tradition, Burpee eliminated cultural information and put in testimonial letters and plant descriptions.
Burpee began to spend summers traveling through the United States and Europe searching for the best flowers and vegetables. He would ship specimens he liked back to Fordhook Farm for testing.
The plants that passed his testing were bred with healthier types of produce hybrids better suited to be grown in the United States.
On one of his trips, Burpee met Asa Palmer, a Pennsylvania farmer who raised beans, and who thought he had a 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.
In 1893, his wife Blanche gave birth their only child David.
Atlee Burpee indroduced Iceberg lettuce in 1894, naming it after its crispness.
Then in 1896, free mail delivery was extended to rural areas. This allowed Burpee Seed catalogs to be delivered directly to people’s homes.
Burpee received thousands of letters annually from customers thanking him for his seeds.
Burpee knew that the key to his business was advertising and the Burpee Seed catalog was his advertising medium.
Another successful product Burpee discovered 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 1902 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.
Floradale and Sunnybrook Farms
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.
By 1915 his catalogs were 200 pages and he distributed a million Burpee Seed catalogs.
W. Atlee Burpee died November 26, 1915 at his families Fordhook Farm in Pennsylvania from cirrhosis of the liver. He is buried in Doylestown Cemetery, Doyelstown, Pennsylvania.
At the time of his death, the Burpee Seed company had 300 employees, and was the largest seed company in the world distributing over 1 million catalogs a year and received an average of 10,000 orders a day.
Now WE know em