King Camp Gillette is frequently bestowed the honour of being named as the inventor of the safety razor and the founder of today's disposable culture. However, a more realistic desciption would be that he was a gifted and very determined businessman with great ambition, who, despite his great success, was a dedicated advocate of socialism
The Gillette family always were pioneers. They sailed from England to Massachusetts in 1630, only 10 years after the "original" settlers arrived in the Mayflower. By the time Gillette was born, on January 5, 1855, the family was living in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, but moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1859. His parents both exemplified the opportunistic characteristics of Gillete's ancestors: his father was an incorrigible tinkerer, and occassional patent agent who ran a hardware store, while in 1887, his mother, Fanny Lemira Gillette, published The White House Cook Book, which stayed in print for a century.
Unfortunately, the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the family's store and all of their possessions. Penniless, they were forced to move to New York City, and Gillette began to work as a travelling salesman, despite being only sixteen. Following in his father's footsteps, Gillette took to improving the products he was selling, and had earned four patents by 1890.
The president of the company he worked for, who was also the inventor of the cork-lined bottle top, gave Gillette the advice that would later make him rich: produce disposable items and the customers will keep on coming back. However, Gillette struggled in the dog eat dog world of sales, and by 1894 had become totally disillusioned with capitalism. This prompted him to write his first book, The Human Drift in 1894, the dedication of which read:
"The thoughts herein contained are dedicated to all mankind; for to all the hope of escape from an environment of injustice, poverty, and crime, is equally desirable."
With this book, Gillette hoped to revolutionise life as we know it. He described a Utopian socialist society, based on universal cooperation and the elimination of financial competition. He proposed the creation of a single uber-company called the World Corporation, in which every citizen would have shares. This company would produce all the goods required by the United States of America, effectively eradicating competition. This was only part of the plan however. He also laid out designs for an enormous 'mother city' called Metropolis, in which all 60 million Americans would live. The mammoth city would occupy a 30 mile wide strip running 120 miles along the southern border of Lake Ontario, and use the Niagara Falls as its power source. Gillette planned to use the space as efficiently as possible by packing 25 storey skyscrapers in a honeycomb pattern, similar to the skycities described by Charles Jencks seventy years later. Although his book was received rapturously by socialist groups, its ideas were so bizarre that it gained no widespread interest.
However, Gillette was about to change the world, but in a way he'd never imagined before.
One morning in 1895, Gillette was shaving at home. As he sometimes had to use his razor on trains, Gillette used the new safety razor invented by the Kampfe Brothers; using a traditional cut-throat razor on a rocking train could lead to the razor living up to its name. This safety razor was not much more than a re-worked cut-throat razor - all the Kampfe Brothers had done was to take a segment of a standard razor blade and attach it perpendicularly to a handle. This design reduced the chance of a user accidently cutting himself by getting the blade angle wrong or slipping. However, the Kampfe Brothers' creation did have two major disadvantages. Firstly, it was just as expensive as a traditional cut-throat razor, but more importantly, its forged blade quickly dulled and had to be sharpened regularly, as Gillette's did that morning.
On this morning, though, Gillette realised the blade was so worn down that it could no longer be sharpened - he would have to buy an expensive new razor. It was then that Gillette had the idea of quick and cheaply mass producing pressed steel blades. These blades would wear out just like Gillette's old razor, but replacements would be so cheap that people wouldn't need to re-sharpen them; just throw them away and buy a new blade. It is easy to underestimate how alien this disposable culture would have seemed at the time. in 1895, products like razors were crafted by artisans, and made to last. The notion of throwing something away after only a fortnight's use would have been totally foreign to most people.
This may have been the reason that Gillette found it so hard to find backing for his disposable safety razor. After six years of searching for someone who could appreciate what he was suggesting, Gillette met the appropriately named William E. Nickerson, an MIT-trained inventor. The pair formed the American Safety Razor Company on September 28, 1901, then in July 1902, changed the name to the Gillette Safety Razor Company.
The first razors were sold in 1903, to a lukewarm reception: only 51 razors and 168 blades were sold that year. However, by 1904, they had adjusted their design to an adjustable double-edged safety razor blade fitted into a specially designed holder. Interest did increase, but Gillette was forced to sell at a loss in order to keep the price low enough to be deemed disposable.
It was then that Gillette made the decision which has since defined our disposable culture. He gave away the razors, just to boost the sales of blades. This idea, combined with automated manufacture and good advertising, meant that disposable razor sales took off. In 1904, the Gillette Safety Razor Company sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades. By 1908, they had factories in the US, Canada, England, France and Germany, and in 1915, razor sales reached 450,000 while blade sales exceeded 70 million.
Gillette used some of his new found influence and money to fund his Utopian dreams. Before World War I, he tried to start his World Corporation in Arizona, even offering Theodore Roosevelt $1 million to be its leader. Roosevelt declined. Gillette also wrote The People's Corporation with social reformer Upton Sinclair. The book was a more lucid expression of Gillette's dreams, but was also hopelessly naive. Stuart Chase said, "(Gillette's) solution is quite untouched by the realities which guard the road to Utopia."
Later in life, Gillette tried a few other speculative ideas, including an attempt to extract oil from shale, an idea still being tried in Canada today. He remained nominally in charge of his company until his death, but retired from active management in 1913. After the 1929 stock market crash, Gillette's fortune was drastically reduced, and he died four years later, still disenchanted with capitalism
Meanwhile, the Gillette Safety Razor Company went from strength to strength, and made $9.9 billion sales in 1999. It owns many well known brands, including Right Guard, Braun, Oral-B, Parker and Waterman.
King Camp Gillette left us with a lot more than just a cunning new razor. His real legacy was the culture his invented heralded. Today, more and more products are taking this innovators approach - have you noticed how cheap printers are getting recently?
There is a very fine line between an insane idea and a brilliant idea. Imagine if he had been able to get oil from shale - I have a feeling that invention would have made him slightly more money than his razors. And what if his Utopian society had materialised, what then? In the end, Gillette had three massive ideas, but only one of them worked.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology - http://web.mit.edu/
University of Houston - http://www.uh.edu/
Chandigarh Perspectives - http://www.cperspectives.org/
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