Next time you shave…

Posted on October 30, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

At the last turn of the century, King Gillette founded what would become a corporate giant, based on a simple yet essential invention: the safety razor with disposable blades.

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Although his ancestors came to Massachusetts from England in 1630, King Camp Gillette was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1855. His father was a sometime patent agent and inveterate tinkerer. His mother was an innovator of sorts too: her years of experiments led to a cookbook (1887) that remained in print for 100 years.

The Gillette family moved to Chicago in 1859; then in 1871, after the Great Fire destroyed their hardware supply business, they moved to New York City. At the age of 17, Gillette became a traveling salesman, who made improvement to his wares as well as selling them. By 1890, he had earned four patents. More importantly, he had learned from the President of his company that disposable items made for big sales.

On the road, Gillette used to shave every morning with a Star Safety Razor: that is, a heavy, wedge-shaped blade fitted perpendicularly into its handle. It would have been downright dangerous, in the lavatory of a rumbling train, for Gillette to shave with the type of straight razor used by most men at the time. However, the safety razor did share a major shortcoming with standard razors: the blade had to be sharpened frequently on a leather strop; and even so, the blade eventually became too worn to sharpen.

One morning in 1895, Gillette, now living in Boston, had a revelation: if he could put a sharp edge on a small square of sheet steel, he could market a safety razor blade that could be thrown away when it grew dull, and readily replaced. Gillette visited metallurgists at MIT, who assured him his idea was impossible. It took Gillette six years to find an engineer, William Emery Nickerson (an MIT-trained inventor), who could produce the blade Gillette wanted.

In 1901, Gillette and Nickerson formed the American Safety Razor Company (soon thereafter renamed for Gillette himself). For the first time, razor blades would be sold in multiple packages, with the razor handle a one-time purchase. Production began in 1903; Gillette won a patent for his product the next year.

 The Gillette Safety Razor Company survived, and thrived. Over the next decades, it expanded its product line — for example, with the introduction of Foamyë shaving cream (1953) and Right Guardë antiperspirant (1960). Gillette also acquired a number of personal care product (Braun, Oral-B) and writing implement (Parker, Waterman) companies. Meanwhile, the mainstay of the corporation has continued to evolve, with the twin-blade razor (Trac-IIë, 1971), disposable razor (Good Newsë, 1976), pivoting-head razor (Atraë, 1977), and, most recently, the triple-blade razor (Macth 3ë, 1999). In 1999, Gillette made $9.9 billion in sales, in over 200 countries.

Biography: King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device, by Russell B. Adams, Jr. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1978).

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