W. Atlee Burpee & Co. was founded in 1876 by W. Atlee Burpee, a seed pioneer who was part of a well-established family in Philadelphia. Burpee's descendants were French Canadian Huguenots with the family name 'Beaupe', but over the course of a few generations they had Americanized the pronunciation and spelling to 'Burpee'. W. Atlee Burpee had been expected to become a doctor, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, but he decided to pursue a different road in life. When he was a boy, one of his most rewarding hobbies was breeding poultry, and that interest soon expanded out to include breeding dogs, livestock, and plants. The science of genetics, which was still in its infancy at that time, was fascinating to the young Burpee.
Improving animals and plants through selective breeding was not a new idea, but its practices were haphazard and relied mainly on trial and error, combined with a little experience and casual observation, rather than being based in actual controlled experiments. By the 1860s, the genetic experiments of Johann Mendel―the 'father' of modern genetics―were available publicly in major libraries, along with Charles Darwin's writings about selective breeding. But not many people in the scientific community had much faith in Mendel's postulations.
However, Burpee was not deterred by a lack of scientific following or proven theories. He toured Europe every year, starting in the early spring in southern Europe, and making his way northward, picking up various seed stocks along the way. He determined that the majority of successful breeders of vegetables at that time were Dutch, German, and Scandinavian. In England he found the best breeders of flowers. He carried with him a field book detailing data and his observations, and during the trip home he spent his time studying his notes. And the field book, including his notes, corrections, and deletions, was used as the Burpee catalog for the year.
Deletions to catalog entries were necessary often, because the seeds and stocks Burpee brought home with him were fastidiously cleaned and tested, and some had to be discarded, because he could not guarantee their success in producing quality plants. And a satisfaction guarantee has been the hallmark of the Burpee legacy from the very beginning. By the 1880s, the company was supplying Northeast states, as well as the Plains states, with garden and flower seeds, and it was the fastest growing mail-order seed company in the world. Then and now, Burpee guarantees satisfaction for a full year from the date of purchase, or they will replace the seeds. This guarantee of quality is what has brought Burpee success through the decades.
Today, the Burpee company is privately owed by George Ball, who is a past president of The American Horticultural Society and owns a family business devoted to diverse horticultural endeavors. The last member of the Burpee family to work for the company, Jonathan Burpee, was fired by Ball in 1993. However, the original farm of the Burpee family, Fordhook Farm, is still maintained in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Burpee is the largest garden company located in North America, selling seeds, gardening supplies, and garden plants via its company website, catalogs, and in retail garden centers around the country. The company offers both hybrid and heirloom varieties of plants, and has introduced numerous edible and ornamental varieties of plants throughout its 134-year history. Burpee's display gardens, headquarters, and research farms are located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.