Gillette, The Billionaire Shaving Pioneer

The original package: Every razor and packet of blades carried King Gillette's image and autograph
The original package: Every razor and packet of blades carried King Gillette's image and autograph

by Ray Setterfield


January 5, 1855 — Safety razor pioneer King Camp Gillette, who was born on this day, may have made millions from his business but he was a Utopian Socialist at heart.

So much so that he dreamed of the day when all industry would be taken over by a single corporation owned by the public, and that everyone in the United States would live in a giant city called Metropolis powered by Niagara Falls.

Gillette envisaged setting up a company to make this vision come true and offered Theodore Roosevelt a million dollars if he would run the operation. The former President declined.

Ancestors of the strangely named King Camp Gillette were French Huguenots who moved to England, then in the 17th Century to the newly established Massachusetts Bay Colony. After King was born in 1855 the family moved from Wisconsin, where they had settled, to Chicago, where he was raised.

He became a travelling salesman of hardware and in 1895, while honing a “cut-throat” razor so that he could shave before starting work, he thought how much better it would be to avoid this dangerous and tedious daily task by using a replaceable razor.

Men had been grappling with the problem for centuries. Prehistoric cave drawings show that clam shells, sharpened flints and even shark’s teeth had been used for shaving. Gillette’s ideas were rather more sophisticated, even if they were not new.

The first safety razor was in fact invented in the 1880s by the Kampfe Brothers of New York, and as writer Brennan Kilbane of Allure magazine noted: “Gillette did not invent the razor, nor the safety razor, nor the concept of disposable blades, but he was the first to patent it. His economic legacy is best felt in the frustration that heats your face when you realise your $22 razor blade set requires you to continually repurchase a $36 eight-pack of refills.”

This all stems from advice given to the young entrepreneurial Gillette by an employer: “Invent something that will be used and thrown away so that the customer will keep coming back.”

Gillette's disposable blades created a new and lucrative retail concept in which razors were sold quite cheaply so that consumers would be locked into the need to continuously purchase relatively expensive blades. The selling technique would become known as the ‘razor and blades model’ and is perhaps most associated today with the printers and ink market.

In its first year of trading in 1903, the Gillette Safety Razor Company sold 51 razors and 168 blades. By the end of 1904, it had produced 90,000 razors and 12,400,000 blades. Gillette’s innovative sales strategy – selling the razors at a loss but making profit on the blades – would turn him into a multi-millionaire.

The fabulously wealthy King Camp Gillette died in 1932, aged 77. Today, the highly successful Gillette brand is owned by the US-based multi-national Procter & Gamble company which purchased the business in 2005 for a staggering $57 billion.

Published: November 3, 2020


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