Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Where Burpee Seeds Grow

As my time as an intern at the Archives of American Gardens comes to an end, I reflect on how I became intimately familiar with the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.  My project, digitizing letters from a 1924 Burpee contest asking gardeners to write in and describe “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me,” grew to include reviewing transcriptions of Burpee letters that appear in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  I digitized roughly 300 letters and read another 600 from the collection.  It’s a good thing I’m a bibliophile! I learned not only why gardeners preferred Burpee seeds, but also the timeless joys that gardening brings.

Each letter was tagged with an index-card sized piece of paper that captured the name of the contestant and their mailing address. As I read and reviewed the letters, I became curious about where they came from. Where did these gardeners plant their Burpee seeds? Early into the digitization project, I came across a letter from Canada (little did I know at the time that they traveled much farther than that) and I began to record in a spreadsheet where these letters originated. I then plotted this data into Google Map Maker.  Below is a map of the locations of the letters which provides a sampling of presumably where Burpee Seeds were sown, nearly 100 years ago.

This curiosity continued as I began to review and approve Burpee letters and photographs already transcribed through the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  This time, instead of just recording where the letters were sent from, I wanted to know what types of plants the gardeners grew.  The resulting map shows the variety of vegetables grown and is organized according to plant family. Before researching and learning the taxonomical classification of several of the plants, I never would have imagined that tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants all share the same family, Solanaceae (let alone the same genus Solanum!).   Below is a map of the majority of vegetation grown and recorded in the Burpee letters from the Transcription Center.

The last map I created is an amalgamation of information from the letters I digitized or reviewed that answers the question:  How far did Burpee seeds travel? It is a map of the international locations where these letters were sent from.

When I began working with the Burpee Collection I never imagined how much I would learn from the letters of gardeners past.  I read about how the Burpee seeds impacted the lives of gardeners, of the gardens they tended, and the plants they loved to grow. More than anything I learned how the ephemeral beauty of a garden is anything but fleeting; gardens will remain eternal as long as there are seeds to grow.

Melinda Allen, Winter Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

No comments:

Post a Comment