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Monday, July 26, 2010

Victory is Sweet (Peas)

Washington Atlee Burpee, founder of the seed company, W. Atlee Burpee Company, grew many different types of plants at the company farms in Pennsylvania, California, and New Jersey. Among the multitude of vegetables, annuals, and perennials grown by his company, however, Burpee had a particular soft spot for the delicate-looking sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus). Grown for its flower rather than its seedpods, the sweet pea was a popularly cultivated annual around the turn of the century. It was inexpensive, successfully grown in most garden soils, came in a variety of colors, and many types also exuded a sweet fragrance. Sweet peas were popular enough in the early twentieth century that cultivators created exhibitions to show off new varieties and compete for awards.

And compete Burpee did. In 1909, his sweet peas won the first gold medal of the National Sweet Pea Society awarded to a cultivator outside of Great Britain. Two years later Burpee entered a flower exhibition in Philadelphia. It took thirty man hours to set up the Burpee exhibit which consisted of over 20,000 blooms of some 200 varieties of sweet peas. Ultimately, Burpee went home with the Morse Silver cup for largest and best trade exhibit, a Silver Medal for best collection, and the North American Silver Cup for best new sweet pea, which was awarded to the bright, scarlet blossoms of Burpee’s Vermilion Brilliant.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens includes horticultural, business and advertising records of W. Atlee Burpee Company. The National Museum of American History Library Trade Literature Collection features copies of hundreds of historic seed catalogs put out by the Burpee company as well as its competitors.

Image, Two Superb New Spencer Sweet Peas for 1912, from Burpee's Annual for 1912, pg. 10

Caitlin DeMarco, Intern, Archives of American Gardens


  1. For people who want to find out more about seed catalogs, the Smithsonian Libraries has two digital projects: "Seed and Nursery Catalogs:"

    And "The American Seed and Nursery Industry:"

    Find out about these digital projects and more at

  2. Are there any scholarly books or journal articles that have used the Burpee Collection?

  3. Take a look at the following bibliography: