Smithsonian Gardens harvests record crop of records from Burpee

As the darkest days of the year approach, what better time to turn our thoughts to spring and the joys of flowers and fancy poultry? Joyce Connolly leads us down the garden path to point out how the Archives of American Gardens’ newest acquisitions are bearing fruit. (Why are you groaning? )


Catalog cover with drawing of chickens

W. Atlee Burpee & Co. “Burpee’s Manual of Thoroughbred Live Stock and Fancy Poultry” (1897) (Smithsonian Institution Libraries)

The Archives of American Gardens recently received an exciting donation of records relating to the W. Atlee Burpee & Company, once the world’s largest mail order seed company.  Over 150 boxes of business records, publications, and photographic images generated by or related to the Burpee Company dating from the 1880s to the 1970s document the workings of the firm and its many efforts to market its wares to gardeners across the globe.

Damages record books in cardboard boxes

The newly donated Burpee Company records include hundreds of thousands of pages. Each box has the potential to yield any number of discoveries. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Gardens)

The materials, ranging from correspondence and office ledgers to seed catalogs and ad mock-ups, join the Burpee Collection that was donated to the Smithsonian in the 1980s.  Together, these records document a firm closely attuned to the marketplace.  The Burpee Company trialed countless vegetable and flower varieties at its various farms in order to produce plants having hardy, colorful, tasty, or aromatic characteristics.

colorful ad featuring red tomatoes

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.

At the same time it was perfecting its seeds, the Burpee Company constantly fine-tuned its advertising and marketing efforts to captivate consumers.  From attracting young school-age gardeners who might become life-long customers to publishing handsome and informative seed catalogs (nicknamed ‘Silent Salesmen’ by the Burpee firm for their ability to generate sales without an actual merchant involved in the transaction), the company worked exhaustively to sell its products.  Burpee ad campaigns involved everything from coupons to contests.  Be sure to check out some of the hundreds of contest letters already in the AAG archives from the 1920s from people describing “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me.”  Many of these handwritten letters have been transcribed by virtual volunteers for the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

colorful ad featuring sweet pea flowers

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.

The newly received Burpee records will need a lot of attention before they can be made readily available for researchers. Old, acidic folders and boxes will need to be replaced with new archival folders and enclosures.  Files, books, and ledgers will need to be swept with a soft brush in order to remove dust and grit that have accumulated over the years. Rehousing the collection is just one step, however; a finding aid will need to be created to serve as a roadmap so AAG staff and researchers know what’s in the collection.

Damaged documents in cardboard file boxes

To help aid in their long-term preservation, the Burpee files will need to be surface cleaned and rehoused. Some of the torn or dog-eared documents may need to be mended or housed in oversized boxes so that they won’t suffer further damage. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Gardens)

While it will be some time before the Burpee donation can be arranged and rehoused, we are glad to know it has found a home at the Smithsonian.  Can’t wait until the collection is open for research?  Enjoy some of the ornate seed catalog covers published by the W. Atlee Burpee & Company and other seedsmen and nurserymen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These are included in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Trade Literature Collection.

Seed catalog cover showing cherubs holding vegetables

W. Atlee Burpee & Co. “Seed Sense” 1901 (Smithsonian Libraries)


Joyce Connolly has been a museum specialist with Smithsonian Gardens since 1999 and divides her time between helping to manage the Archives of American Gardens and SG’s Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. 


Posted: 20 December 2016
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