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Friday, April 20, 2018

Processing the Burpee Company Records, Part One

The first time encountering a new collection is exciting for an archivist. This is when we evaluate the physical condition of the collection, the predominant materials (papers, books, memorabilia, etc.), and, if possible, any potential series within the collection (business records, correspondence, newspapers, etc.) that aid in its final arrangement. It can be overwhelming to see a large number of disordered and dusty boxes in front of you, but knowing that within each box rests items that have not been touched for 5, 10, 30, even a hundred years is always exhilarating (in a bookish kind of way). This post will talk about my first week working on a new accretion to the W. Atlee Burpee Company Records.

The first step involves researching what exactly the collection is about. The W. Atlee Burpee Co. was founded by Washington Atlee Burpee in 1878. Burpee’s business grew over the next 15 years, and by 1893, Burpee had reached the top of the American seed scene when he was elected president of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). The Burpee Company rose to prominence under W. Atlee Burpee, but, of course, not without its good and bad years. When W. Atlee became ill around 1913, his eldest son David left his studies at Cornell to assist in operating the family business. In 1915, David was made CEO. Under David’s direction, the Burpee Co. continued to expand globally. In 1970, General Foods acquired the company.
David Burpee’s official resignation as president of W. Atlee Burpee Co., and the official “closing” of the deal with General Foods. The Burpee Co. merged with the Ball Seed Company in 1991 and is still an active business today.
The Burpee Co. was a well-run machine by the beginning of the twentieth century. W. Atlee Burpee was an astute businessman, a great organizer, and an innovator in seed marketing and advertising. He kept a close eye on all of his products as well. Constantly in correspondence with employees, contractors, retailers, and consumers, he stayed current with all aspects of his business. But it was marketing that separated Burpee from his competitors. Having the consumer interact with the company not only encouraged interest in Burpee seeds, but also helped the Burpee Co. connect with those who supported its business. Burpee’s approach to marketing ensured a personal and long-lasting relationship with its customers.

Looking at the business records of a company run by such a man is inspiring. Detailed notes scribbled all over scraps of paper capture his marketing skills. David Burpee had large shoes to fill when he took over the company, and he succeeded. In 1926, just a few years into radio broadcasting’s “golden age,” the Burpee Co. promoted a “largest zinnia” contest through a local radio station, WLIT in Philadelphia. Letters poured in to the radio station (which were all forwarded to the Burpee Co.) regarding the contest, with some seeking Burpee publications as well.

1926 letter submitted by Mrs. E. Shepherd of West Philadelphia to WLIT radio station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Listeners were invited to submit a letter requesting free Burpee seeds and publications. 

Between a company that crossed all oceans, and a business model that was as connected as ever to the customer, W. Atlee would have been proud of what his son accomplished. I am excited to be working on the W. Atlee Burpee Company Records. It is a great story of an American company, and deserves to be preserved. Processing collections requires patience, attention to detail, and great organization. Above all else, the archivist must acknowledge that they are presenting once hidden materials to the public.

Chris DeMairo, Intern

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