King Gillette (1855-1932)

King Camp Gillette is one of the best examples of an entrepreneur who was compelled by a vision to create a better society. Although his invention of the safety razor (patent 775134) made the faces of American men look better, as a Utopian Socialist, Gillette was unable to achieve his main goal of changing the plight of our nation’s working force.
Born in Chicago, Gillette was forced to leave school at the age of sixteen when the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed his home. It was then that he became a traveling salesman for several hardware companies based in Chicago and New York. As he traveled through the Midwest, he witnessed industrial growth and urban misery, rich farmlands and poor farmers. Out of these observations came his first book,
The Human Drift, published in 1894, when he was thirty-nine years old. Gillette wrote that most of the nation’s economic problems derived from wasteful competition. More important, the system fostered a social climate in which selfishness and greed prevailed. From this came crime, civil corruption, excesses of wealth and poverty, and moral decay. To correct the situation, Gillette advocated the creation of a single corporation owned by the public, and which would take charge of all production and for which everyone would work. His book was barely noticed, an oversight Gillette attributed to his inability to publicize the book. To rectify this situation he would need more money than he could earn selling hardware. Gillette reasoned that, if he could invent something that everyone would want to buy, he would become rich enough to publicize his book.
Among the companies Gillette represented was one owned by William Painter, a manufacturer of new kind of disposable bottle stopper. Painter spoke to Gillette about how a fortune might be reaped through the invention of “something that would be used and then thrown away” and cheap enough that the customer would come back for more. The thought fell on fertile ground. Gillette hit upon an idea. He realized that a profit could be made by selling a safety razor at a reduced price and then making a profit on inexpensive disposable blades. Once the blade became dull, it would be discarded and replaced by a new one, using the same holder. Gillette carved a model from a block of wood and, with the help of machinist William Nickerson, worked on several prototypes to show prospective investors. Gillette convinced his friends to invest $5,000 to form the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1901.
The first sales were made in 1903, when 51 razors were marketed along with 168 blades. By 1904 Gillette sold 90,000 razors and 12.4 million blades as he poured capital into advertising. Sales continued to soar as more men accepted a new way to shave, but barbershop shaves did not disappear. Many men clung to their straight razors until World War I when soldiers and sailors switch from cigars to cigarettes and from pocket watches to wrist watches. At the urging of Gillette, the U.S. Army issued safety razors to the doughboys on the front lines and the soldiers continued to use them after the war. Gillette wrote two more books on social reform before his death on July 9, 1932, in Los Angeles, CA. He is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale. He was almost bankrupted at the time of his death, due to spending large amounts of money on worthless property in Florida where he had planned to build his Utopian City and to the devaluation of his corporation stock during the Great Depression.
Years earlier, King Gillette had written that the U.S. government had to provide work to the unemployed in hard times; something President Franklin Roosevelt would do after Gillette’s death. For most of his adult life, Gillette strove to bring to fruition his vision of a better world, and failed. What he did accomplish was to revolutionize the way men shave. His invention and marketing of the disposable razor blade has improved the way half of today’s population see themselves in the mirror each morning.