Seedsmen Hall of Fame

W. Atlee Burpee

1886 Burpee Farm Annual CoverWashington Atlee Burpee was born on April 5, 1858 at Sheffield, New Brunswick.  His parents moved to Philadelphia when he was a child.  By fourteen his hobby was breeding chickens, geese and turkeys.  He attended private schools and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1878.

In 1876, with a partner and $1,000 loaned to him by his mother,  Burpee started a mail-order chicken business from the family home.  Poultry farmers throughout the Northeast knew of the company.  After opening a retail store in Philadelphia, they began selling corn seed for feed to compliment the animal business.  His customers soon began to request vegetable seeds.

In 1878, after graduating and dropping his partner, he founded W. Atlee Burpee & Company.  Although the emphasis was garden seeds, poultry remained in the annual catalog into the 1940s.

Fordhook Farms, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was established by 1888 and served as the family home, a farm to evaluate varieties of vegetables and flowers, and to produce seeds.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Burpee spent several summers traveling throughout the United States and Europe seeking new and interesting plant varieties.  Many of the vegetables and flowers he found were sent back to Fordhook Farms for evaluation.  The Fordhook Farm facility specialized in evaluating onions, beets, carrots, peas and cabbage.

Burpee added the Lompoc, California facility named Floradale Farms in  in 1909 to test sweet peas, and Sunnybrook Farms near Swedesboro, New Jersey for tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squashes.

Setting Danish Ballhead CabbageBurpee released many varieties that are now classics.  Some of these are the 'Fordhook Lima' bean, Iceberg lettuce was introduced in 1894 and named for its crispness, and 'Golden Bantam' sweet corn in 1902.

Burpee was a pioneer in the mail order marketing of seeds.  In his first year of business, his catalog was 48 pages. Distribution was one million catalogs.  Although Burpee set up an advertising department, he personally wrote most of the copy in the catalogs.

By the time of his death, the company was the largest seed company in the world,  distributing over 1 million catalogs a year, receiving 10,000 orders a day during peak times. and employing about 300 people.  Management passed to son David Burpee.

He died on November 26, 1915 at Fordhook Farm, Pennsylvania and is buried in Doylestown Cemetery, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA.
Specific Interment Location: Section M, Plot 49. His cause of death was listed as cirrhosis of liver. Click here to read his obituary.


W. Atlee Burpee Seed Catalog Collection at the Victory Horticultural Library


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