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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Philanthropy in the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records

The W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records consist of material not only related to the seed wholesaler, but also the personal lives that the Burpee family led. A highlight of this collection thus far is the philanthropic endeavors of W. Atlee and his wife Blanche, their son, David, and his wife, Lois.

I first noticed charitable donations in W. Atlee’s company correspondence. As the head of the company, he received letters from organizations and individuals thanking him for his donations of either seeds or money. I thought they were nothing more than a donation here and there until more evidence of his philanthropy surfaced in his personal papers as well. Now, having processed a significant portion of the collection, I see these letters much differently. Rather than a few isolated examples of charity, these letters represent an essential characteristic of the Burpee family and Burpee Company legacy.
Two photographs captioned “5 dispensary patients” and “a view on the Tenga Poni River,” which accompanied a letter sent to W. Atlee Burpee by H. W. Kirby in 1912. Kirby worked for the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and was stationed in Sadiya, India when he wrote the letter thanking W. Atlee for donating seeds for the mission’s garden. Smithsonian Gardens, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.
With little information discovered (so far) regarding W. Atlee’s and Blanche’s upbringing, it is difficult to know whether involvement in philanthropic organizations was a part of their lives from a young age. We do know that W. Atlee came from a family of doctors. Although he left the study of that profession to enter the seed business, it appears that helping others remained a part of his life’s work.

W. Atlee made small gifts as both a private individual, and on behalf of his company, to a variety of organizations. His donations were directed mostly towards religiously-affiliated charities, but local hospitals and schools were also recipients. In addition to these donations (usually five to ten dollars each), W. Atlee was also a trustee of the Howard Hospital and the Sanitarium Association—both organizations designed to provide medical treatment for lower-class families in the Philadelphia area. These organizations required more dedication—of both energy and money—from W. Atlee. In 1914-1915 he served on Howard Hospital’s building and publicity committees, and had a donation annuity plan set up for $1,000 per year.

For Blanche, her major philanthropic project was to erect a neighborhood park in their hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Within the park’s charter it mentions: “for the purpose and desire to advance the general welfare, improvement, enjoyment and health of, and their good will towards the children of the Borough of Doylestown…” The park is still there today and known as Burpee Park. In addition to the park, and much like her husband, Blanche also made donations to local schools and charities. A 1912 letter discussing her and W. Atlee’s magazine subscriptions, for example, reveals that Blanche annually supplied Doylestown High School with copies of Harper’s Weekly.

Original charter for the Blanche Burpee Public Playground in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1913. “Blanche Burpee Playground, 1913.” Smithsonian Gardens, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records.
Just as innovative advertising and plant hybridization—the Burpee modus operandi—were built upon under David’s tutelage, so too was philanthropy. A Christmas article published in the Philadelphia Record in 1918 spoke of a twenty-five-year-old David Burpee continuing the Burpee Company’s Christmas tradition. For each employee: one box of cigars, ten pounds of candy, a $5 gold piece, and a bonus. For the children fortunate enough to sign up in advance—1,800 of them that year— they had the choice of either a box of candy or a “bright new quarter.” David continued to donate to and support various causes over the next half-century including efforts during both World Wars, donations to the Red Cross, university scholarship endowments, and other human welfare projects.

As for David’s wife, Lois, we know she was born into a family of humanitarians. Both of her parents were missionary doctors in Palestine when she was born there in 1912. Lois and David were both on the board of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation since that organization’s inception in 1964. The foundation was created by the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning Buck to support impoverished children in Asian countries. Lois ultimately received the Pearl S. Buck Woman’s Award in 1980. The organization is still around today, working on projects to establish clean water and sanitation in Thailand, provide skill training for mothers in the Philippines, dental treatment for children in Vietnam, and much more. Lois was involved in local charities as well—a few examples include her support to establish thrift shops and a kindergarten, and her position on the board of the Bucks County Mental Health Society.

Philanthropic undertakings seem to have been deeply embedded in the Burpee name, and its legacy continued even after David sold the company in 1980. The company made a large donation to CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) in 1998, and has more recently donated to the White House Kitchen Garden, helped plant community gardens in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and provided a $75,000 grant for a symposium titled ‘Energy in Transition’ held at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania—the original home of the W. Atlee Burpee Company.

Chris Demairo, Intern

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