David Burpee (1893 - 1980) was born in Pennsylvania and attended Cornell University until his father, W. Atlee Burpee, died in 1915. Burpee dropped out and took over the family business selling seeds. He immediately began shifting the firm's focus from vegetables to flowers. In 1917 the W. A.. Burpee Company was incorporated with Burpee as president. Sales were $900,000 that year, equal to $16,567,013 today.
Burpee initiated a War Gardens campaign during World War I when overseas seed supplies were interrupted and there were food shortages. These programs were aimed at city folk, teaching them how to grow food during shortages by buying Burpee seeds. During the 1930s the company started a cross-breeding program to produce healthier and more disease-resistant hybrids. This period also saw the development of Golden Gleam, a double nasturtium, the Big Boy tomato, the Ambrosia cantaloupe, and also new varieties of petunias and marigolds.
During the 1940s Burpee moved on to genetic engineering, altering flower chromosomes using the chemical colchicine extracted from crocus plants. This research led to new varieties of snapdragons and zinnia. World War II meant more shortages and another opportunity to sell seeds in the Victory Gardens campaign.
By 1959 Burpee had grown his father's company into the largest seed catalog mail order house in the world with sales over $6 million, equal to $48,541,096 today. In 1960 Burpee mailed 4 million seed annuals to customers. The aging David Burpee sold his company to General Foods in 1970 and in 1979 it was passed on to ITT. Both companies retained David Burpee as a consultant until his death in June 1980. His son Jonathan Burpee was the director of the customer service department during the 1970s. He left the company in 1993.
In 1991 the Burpee company was acquired by George J. Ball, Inc. (now Ball Horticultural Company), a diversified horticultural family business. In 1995 the family split up the various holdings, with George Ball Jr. taking control of Burpee.