In mid-January, with its cold, short days and spring still some distance over the horizon, many of us delight in browsing through the new season’s seed catalogues. Whether we consult a paper catalogue, or visit a website, both immerse us in a colourful world of new growing possibilities and provide a welcome reminder of summer days to come.
But as we place our orders, who are the people who will receive and process them, fill the seed packets, package them up and post them to us? In this remarkable photographic project from 1943, Arthur S. Siegel takes us into the heart of operations at seed dealers W. Atlee Burpee in Philadelphia to meet the staff keeping the supply of vegetable and flower seeds flowing to its customers during World War II.
The project was commissioned by the Office of War Information as part of a country-wide record of the role played by US companies in the war effort. At once we notice the large number of women employed at W. Atlee Burpee, working across the roles, in administration, testing seed samples for viability, and operating the machines that sorted seeds into their packets. The men are generally above conscription age – although there is one young man working in the vast storage and packing department. The caption of a photograph showing a young woman sweeping the floor explains that she is doing the man’s job of a janitor due to the war.
The W. Atlee Burpee Company was established in 1876 and by the time David Burpee took over the business from his father in 1915, it was estimated to be the largest seed company in the world, employing 300 people and distributing over a million of its catalogues each year. Whereas Atlee was focused primarily on vegetables, David liked flowers and produced dozens of new varieties of marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias. David Burpee also ran the Victory Gardens campaign aimed at city dwellers and teaching them how to grow their own food during the produce shortages caused by World War II.
As a large company W. Atlee Burpee supplied farms and market gardens in the United States, as well as individuals. Siegel’s photographs show rows of seed sacks ready for dispatch to agricultural businesses across the United States, while others are labelled for shipping around the world, to England, Ireland and South Africa. The photograph of the company’s enormous Philadelphia building underlines of the scale of the enterprise.
The atmosphere at the warehouse seems busy and focused; the piles of order forms on workers’ desks and heaps of packages waiting for posting indicating the important role of growing food during wartime. But the wartime catalogues continue to feature plenty of flowers alongside the vegetables, and these are given pride of place on the occasional colour pages of these mostly black and white publications.
Planning the garden and choosing some favourite flowers is the gardener’s annual response to this dormant season and the new year – but perhaps now, as in the 1940s, it’s also a response to uncertain times – sowing some seeds as an act of hope and optimism.
Library of Congress: Arthur S. Siegel’s photographs of the W. Atlee Burpee Company
W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1941
W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1942
The Smithsonian Libraries: Biographies of American Seedsmen and Nurserymen