Category Archives: Seed Catalogues

At the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company

New for 1942 – Burpee’s yellow cosmos front cover of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers Catalogue (via archive.org)

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.

Exterior of the W. Atlee Burpee seed plant, Philadelphia 1943 photographed by Arthur S. Siegel (Library of Congress)

Sealing envelopes containing seed

Order assembler standing next to racks containing seed packages

Finding seed package in seed rack

Feeding envelopes to seed counting machines

The cashier totaling individual orders

Operator of a seed counting machine

Interior of the bulk seed warehouse

Bags of seed to be sent to England

Wrapper with packages of seed ready for the mail

Orders in trays before they are packed for shipment

Measuring bulk seed order

Seed packages arranged in seed rack

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Typing address labels on a flat bed typewriter

Punching code information on mailing stencils

Testing seeds for germinating qualities

Storage of bulk seeds

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Checking seed order against catalog

Weighing the outgoing mail

Germinating seeds after they have been removed from the oven

Accountant assembling the day’s returns

Checking an order against the catalog

Bulb storage racks

Women with a typical display rack of Burpee seeds

Seed filling machine

Due to the War the janitor is a girl

Outdoor sign over doorway entrance

Burpee’s Wildfire New Single Marigolds 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
Order form from the 1941 Catalogue

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
1941 Catalogue

Burpee’s New and Better Vegetables 1942

Burpee’s new Calendulas – the X-Ray Twins ‘Glowing Gold’ and ‘Orange Fluffy’ 1942

Back cover of the catalogue 1942

Further reading:

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

 

The Seedsmen of Lower Manhattan

The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Map of Lower Manhattan 1902

It’s hard to imagine today that the urban streets of Lower Manhattan might once have had a connection with horticulture.  But in the 19th and early 20th centuries the streets off Broadway were home to a network of highly successful seed merchants and companies offering services connected with domestic and commercial cultivation.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Seed and Nursery Catalog Collection preserves thousands of colourful illustrated seed catalogues from companies across the United States, revealing which crops and flowers were popular in the past, and the locations where companies were based.  Many merchants, justifiably proud of their warehouse buildings and growing fields, described and illustrated them in their promotional literature.

In Manhattan, Burnett Brothers and Weeber & Don, both seed merchants and growers, were based in Chambers Street.  In nearby Barclay Street were J.M. Thorburn & Co founded in 1802, and Stumpp & Walter who specialised in flower and vegetable seed (and beautiful catalogues).  Dey Street was home to William Elliot & Sons Seedsmen and the retail premises of Peter Henderson and Co was in Cortlandt Street.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but gives some indication of the concentration of horticultural businesses in this area of the city.  All these companies sold seeds for domestic use and supplied wholesale grains and vegetable seeds to farmers.  Most sold grass seed for lawns and sports uses, garden tools, machinery, fertilisers and pesticides.

Henderson’s catalogues give some idea of the size of this particular business.  The illustrations below from 1905 show the five storey retail premises in Cortlandt Street plus the seed processing, packing and storage warehouses in Jersey City.  Also shown are acres of greenhouses in Arlington Avenue in Jersey City, then a centre for market gardening.

Peter Henderson wrote articles about gardening for magazines and published his first book explaining how to run a market gardening business Gardening for Profit in 1866.  Gardening for Pleasure (1875) was aimed at the amateur gardener and explains how to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Henderson’s catalogues represented a significant part of the company’s marketing strategy, with 750,000 printed every January in the 1880s.

The company remained in family hands until the mid 1940s, but failed to move with the times.  An article in Life Magazine described employees in the Cortlandt Street store using the same scales to weigh out seeds that had been used in the 19th century, and ladies filling flower seed packets ‘using little ivory measuring spoons of different sizes for different-sized seeds.’  Henderson merged with Stumpp & Walter in 1951, but by 1953 this company had closed.

William Elliott’s catalogue of 1897 reveals an advertisement for Hitchings & Co, suppliers of glasshouses and heating systems for these structures – another contributor to the local horticultural industry.  In the late 19th century Hitchings & Co was based in Mercer Street.  The New York Botanical Garden records that this company was established in 1844, beginning as a specialist in the manufacture of ventilation and heating systems for greenhouses, and that it began making greenhouse structures in 1888.

These vividly coloured catalogues must have been an inspiration to gardeners when they were published and remain full of interest today, showing the scale and importance of the horticultural industry and the contribution it made to New York.

This image shows the Peter Henderson Co’s retail premises in Manhattan (centre) and the seed packing premises in Jersey City. From Everything for the Garden 1905. Peter Henderson & Co.

Everything for the Garden Peter Henderson & Co 1916.  Showing acres of glasshouses and cultivation fields in New Jersey supplying the business with seeds, bulbs, tubers, etc.

Everything for the Garden 1910

Everything for the Garden 1910

Everything for the Garden 1916

Everything for the Garden 1916

Everything for the Garden 1916

Stumpp & Walter, Spring 1912

Stumpp & Walter, Spring 1912

Peter Henderson Stumpp & Walter Co Fall catalogue 1951 shortly after the companies merged.

Peter Henderson Stumpp & Walter Co Fall catalogue 1951 announcement of the merger of the two companies.

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Wm Elliott & Sons 1897

Burnett Brothers, seedsmen 1918

Burnett Brothers, seedsmen 1918

Weeber & Don, seed merchants and growers 1919

Weeber & Don, seed merchants and growers 1919 – showing detail of the company’s building on Chambers Street, New York

Thorburn’s century: J. M. Thorburn & Co one hundredth annual catalogue 1901

Thorburn’s century: J. M. Thorburn & Co one hundredth annual catalogue 1901

MacNiff Horticultural Company Seed Annual 1921

Further reading:

NJCU Peter Henderson

Biodiversity Heritage Library Seed Catalogs

Smithsonian Libraries Biographies for Seedsmen

Smithsonian Libraries Seed Catalogs