Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, shaving was a nuisance, and sometimes even dangerous. That changed when King Camp Gillette (1855-1932) founded the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1901 and began selling his safety razors with disposable blades two years later.
In his book The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device—King C. Gillette, biographer Russell B. Adams, Jr. noted, "King C. Gillette had thought he might be remembered as one of history's social and economic reformers. Instead, he is recalled as the inventor of the safety razor, with its disposable blade and as the founder of the major American corporation that bears his name." One hundred years later, the Gillette Company and its name are known world-wide, and razors remain a necessary tool for maintaining personal grooming.
King Camp Gillette was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, on January 5, 1855, the son of George Wolcott Gillette and Fanny Lemira Camp. He was the youngest of three sons, and also had two sisters. Biographer Adams wrote, "His royal first name honored a Judge King who was a friend of George Gillette's."
Adams described Gillette's father as "a sometime postmaster, weekly-newspaper editor, and inventive thinker," and his mother as "serene" but also a "stern disciplinarian, always in control of her household." Adams asserted, "It was probably under her influence that King Gillette developed his lifelong belief in efficiency, and his hatred for wasting time." The Gillette family moved to Chicago, Illinois, and young Gillette was raised and educated there. Adams wrote, "The Gillette boys were encouraged to work with their hands, to figure out how things work and how they might be made to work better."
In October of 1871, a fire devastated the city of Chicago. Gillette's father lost everything, and decided to move his family to New York City. Adams noted that the 17-year-old Gillette stayed in Chicago and clerked for a wholesale hardware company. Two years later, he took a position in New York City. He then moved to a Kansas City, Missouri company, who promoted him to a traveling salesman position when he was 21-years-old.
Gillette the Salesman
For the next 20 years, Gillette worked in a succession of jobs, and became a prosperous and successful traveling salesman. He enjoyed "tinkering" and tried to invent new products, often without success. Gillette was also an avid reader and had strong political views. He wanted to see radical changes in the social and economic systems of the United States. In 1890, Gillette married Atlanta Ella Gaines (nicknamed Lantie), who was the daughter of an Ohio oilman. They would have one son, King Gaines Gillette, nicknamed Kingie, but called "Babe" by his father.
Gillette joined the Baltimore Seal Company as the salesman for New England and New York. Not long after, Gillette joined the company, its president, William Painter, invented an improved stopper, a crown bottle cap that would crimp over a bottle top. The stopper became the standard in the bottling industry, and Painter changed the company's name to Crown Cork and Seal Company. Gillette and Painter had a close personal and business relationship, and Adams described them as "kindred inventive spirits." Adams recounted that in 1891, Gillette and Painter had a very important conversation; Painter encouraged him to begin working on a product that would be thrown away after its use, which would keep consumers coming back for more of the product. Adams continued, "Gillette did think about it. Indeed, he confessed later that Painter's words became an obsession with him."
In the 1890s, Gillette was a very busy man. He had a family to care for. He had dreams of a utopian (perfect and ideal) society. He also continued to work on his invention. By the time he first conceived of the idea that would change his life in 1895, Gillette was already well known in radical political circles. Perhaps motivated by his mother who, after 35 years of collecting and testing recipes and household tips, had written the best-selling White House Cookbook, Gillette was determined to complete his book of ideas and political views. In 1894, Gillette finished The Human Drift, a manifesto of his utopian world. However Gillette's political views and visions would never equal the success of his invention, which was about to become the most important idea in his life.
The Salesman Became an Inventor
History shows that men have been shaving since ancient times. Cave paintings show that sharp objects were used as razors. Gold and copper razors have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1700s, the steel straightedge razor was created in England, yet shaving with this sharp, unprotected blade was a dangerous procedure. Others tried to invent better and safer instruments, but the old straightedge razor remained in use until Gillette's disposable blade in 1901.
As recounted by Adams, "One early spring morning while in the midst of shaving, his face well slathered with warm soap, he [Gillette] had conceived the disposable razor blade." That same day, Adams continued, Gillette rushed to a hardware store and "bought steel ribbon, some pieces of brass, files, and a small vise, and began making a model of his brainchild." Adams added that Gillette then wrote a letter to his wife, who was visiting her family in Ohio and stated, "I have got it; our fortune is made."
Gillette set high goals for himself. Adams wrote that he planned "to build first a better world and then a better razor blade." He struggled to achieve both his goals over the new few years. On August 11, 1899, Adams noted, "he filed for the first patent on the device he conceived four summers earlier, calling it 'new in the art of razor manufacture and use."' In the meantime, technical experts told Gillette that it was impossible to produce steel hard, thin, and cheap enough to make disposable blades. Gillette was not dissuaded.
His luck changed in early 1900. Through mutual business associates, Gillette met William Emery Nickerson, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Adams described Nickerson as a "clever inventor but not much of a businessman" but added that he "was known for taking a small idea and making it reality." Nickerson agreed to work on the project. According to Adams, the two men clashed along the way. They disagreed about what to name the company. The Gillette Safety Razor Company was organized in September of 1901, and Gillette was named president. Adams reflected, "If Gillette was a king, he was without a real kingdom, for his top-lofty title as president of the Gillette Safety Razor company was only in name." The company still did not have a product to sell.
By 1903, Nickerson had developed the necessary design and machinery to produce the razor blades, while Gillette had secured the necessary financial backing. The next dilemma was what to name the product. As noted on the "King Camp Gillette" section of the Engines of Our Ingenuity website, Gillette believed "if they called a razor blade a Nickerson, that was too suggestive of nicked skin." In the end, Gillette's name was put on the product. The razor would prove to be an instant success.
The Gillette Safety Razor Company
By the end of his second year in business, Adams noted, Gillette had produced 90,000 razors and 12,400,000 blades. The disposable razor was a huge success, and sales grew quickly. Gillette became one of the best known men in the world, Adams added, as his photo was printed on billions of blade wrappers. Men who used the product highly recommended it and appreciated what it did. Adams noted that one user wrote, "The razor gives you a clean, smooth shave that makes your face as soft as velvet." Another user wrote that his Gillette razor cut his shaving time from 20 to 5 minutes.
Despite this glowing praise, there was trouble at the top. The two principal owners of the company were John Joyce and Gillette. They frequently clashed. Gillette disagreed with Joyce's proposal to sell overseas rights to the razor. For a time, Adams noted, Gillette resigned as president and went to England. It was perhaps ironic Adams wrote, that "World War I, proved to be a boon for the Gillette Safety Razor Company." By the end of 1917, all recruits were given Gillette shaving equipment, along with their uniforms and weapons. In an article on the Fortune magazine website, Christine Chen and Tim Carvell added "During World War I, Gillette supplied 3.5 million razors and 36 million blades to U.S. soldiers, creating a base of customers who kept coming back for refills long after the Treaty of Versailles." Gillette was a wealthy man and the company prospered.
In 1926, to commemorate the company's 25th anniversary, Gillette wrote (as cited on the Gillette Company website) of the company's flagship product, the safety razor, "There is no other article for individual use so universally known or widely distributed. In my travels, I have found it in the most northern town in Norway and in the heart of the Sahara Desert."
The Social Reformer
As noted in the internet article Gillette, Ideal City Proposal, "Before perfecting his invention of the safety razor and founding what became a major American industrial and sales enterprise, Gillette authored several books and pamphlets calling for radical changes in the country's economic and social system." After Gillette retired from active participation in his company in 1913, (remaining president until 1931), he shifted his focus to writing books, in which he publicized his views on utopian socialism. In addition to The Human Drift (1894), Gillette's books included The Ballot Box (1897), World Corporation (1910), and The People's Corporation (1924). His views were also discussed in two other books, Gillette's Social Redemption (1907) and Gillette's Industrial Solution (1908), written by Melvin L. Severy.
According to the "King Camp Gillette" section of the Engines of Our Ingenuity website, prior to World War I, Gillette envisioned his "World Corporation" in the Arizona Territory, with former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt serving as its leader. Roosevelt wasn't interested, so he subsequently turned to social reformer and writer Sinclair Lewis and auto maker Henry Ford, to no avail. That essentially ended the vision of a "World Corporation."
Gillette also imagined, Adams recounted, a "Utopian city", a "Metropolis," which would be located near Niagara Falls for maximum efficiency and water supply. The population would live in huge apartment buildings and house millions of people. Mundane day-to-day tasks would be minimal because of the housing set-up. There would be "universal cooperation" Adams noted, and no economic competition.
Although some of Gillette's ideas, such as government-provided work for the unemployed, have been realized, his plans for a "World Corporation" and "Metrpolis" did not become a reality. Adams concluded, "The world was more interested in the clean, close, safe shaves that Gillette's razors gave, than in his philosophy, so his curious economic and political notions have been all but forgotten."
Retirement and Later Years
Gillette had other interests to keep him busy in his later years. He had become wealthy from real estate interests in southern California. Adams added that in the late 1920s, Gillette was an enthusiastic supporter of President Herbert Hoover and his ideas. In April of 1931, Gillette resigned as president of the company that bore his name, citing his age and declining health. A little over a year later, on July 9, 1932, with his wife and son by his side, Gillette died in Los Angeles. He is remembered chiefly for his important invention. Biographer Adams concluded, "The Gillette Company, beginning with the first safety razor with disposable blades, has been a part of daily life in America and much of the rest of the world for more than three-quarters of a century."
Adams, Russell B. Jr., The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device—King C. Gillette, Little, Brown and Company, 1978.
Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Gale Group, 1999.
World of Invention, Gale Research, 1994.
"Development of the 'safety' razor," Razors, http://homepage.dtn.ntl.com/paul.linnell/electricity/razors.html (December 18, 2000).
Gillette, Ideal City Proposal, http://www.library.cornell.edu/Reps/DOCS/gillette.htm(December 18, 2000)
"Gillette at a Glance," The Gillette Company website, http://www.gillette.com(December 18, 2000).
"King Camp," Index of/Public/FamousGillettes http://www.gillette.net/Public/FamousGillettes/KingCamp.html (December 18, 2000).
"No. 738: King Camp Gillette" Engines of Our Ingenuity, http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi738.htm(December 18, 2000).
"Products of the Century—Health and Grooming," Fortune.com: 11.22.99, http://www.fortune.com/fortune/1999/11/22/pro7.html (December 18, 2000)