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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Processing the Burpee Company Records, Part Two

My ‘archival expectations’ began once I was informed by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens that I would be processing a seed company’s collection. I figured I would find business records—office files, formal correspondence, personnel and financial records, and contracts. What I was not expecting, however, was a surprisingly large amount of family papers.

For me, the most exciting part about working with personal papers is reading into the social life these people lived; especially of those similar to my age (25). Reading about good times had with family and friends is an enjoyable aspect of working on personal collections. Rarely, however, do personal collections that span generations not mention death, and this is a reality an archivist must anticipate. My time with the Burpee Company Collection has been nothing short of an intellectual and emotional roller coaster: one day going through tax forms and marketing files, the next a box full of correspondence introducing me to a very personal side of the Burpee family.

On a Wednesday, I came across a box of David Burpee’s papers (most likely compiled shortly before he took over the management of the company), which slowly crept up on the dates surrounding the death of his father, W. Atlee, in 1915. David was 22. That summer he traveled through New England—golfing and swimming with family and friends, while simultaneously seeking potential brides (he kept a close eye on newspapers, noting every debutante that caught his interest.)

Photograph from a summer canoe outing in Camden, Maine, 1915.

Newspaper clipping of image of Miss Margaret Gray of Girard Farms.
It is amazing how much I can relate to the joy in his adventures with friends and family. But as I read on, the letters took a dark turn, and the content quickly shifted from joyous vacations to his father’s poor health. The humanity and compassion within the correspondence jumped out at me. One can imagine the feeling as David Burpee read letters sent from family and friends who knew he were by the side of his ailing father.

Letter from Aunt Maggie to David Burpee regarding the illness of W. Atlee Burpee, October 25, 1915.
Just two days after working on documents that surrounded W. Atlee’s death, I was working on documents from 1980 approaching David’s death. The box was filled with happy remembrances; composed of documents related to Lois Burpee, David’s wife, and the writing of her garden cookbook, Lois Burpee’s Gardener’s Companion and Cookbook. Newspaper clippings, book reviews, congratulatory letters, and manuscript drafts made up the majority of the material. It appears Lois began working on her book in the early 1970s, but by the time she became more involved with its writing, her husband was ill. David died in June, 1980, at the age of 87. As I went through this box, I came across stacks of newspaper clippings and book reviews, and then another stack of obituaries and memorials. It was a bittersweet juxtaposition.

The fact that this collection includes far more than company records is partly due to who this family was. They were caring, hardworking and intelligent; their company was a vital part of who they were as people. The Burpee Company Collection thus offers insight into not only how a business of this magnitude operated under two generations of one family for nearly a century, but also demonstrates who these people truly were.

Chris DeMairo, Intern
Archives of American Gardens

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