A Sharp-Minded Inventor: The Life of King Camp Gillette

On the 15th of November, 1904, a very special patent was granted to Mr. King Camp Gillette. The patent, Number 775,134, concerned the invention of a safety razor that would make Gillette famous all around the world. It was the first significant step in a long and storied career that would ensure Gillette’s name lived on for many decades after his death. Through clever business tactics and intelligent strategy, Gillette launched a legacy, with his brand name still being synonymous with razors and other personal care products to this day. It’s an inspiring story, and it all started with one man with one very bright idea.

Birth and Youth

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(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

King Camp Gillette was born on January 5 of 1855 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As his name implies, Gillette’s family had French heritage. Gillette was raised in the city of Chicago, Illinois. His childhood was relatively uneventful until his 16th year when he and his family were caught up in one of Chicago’s most devastating historical events: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire raged for a few days and led to an estimated 300 fatalities, as well as destroying over three square miles of the city’s buildings. The Gillette family all survived the fire, but lost a lot of their belongings and were in dire need of money to get back on their feet. Thus, King decided to search for work.

The Beginnings of Inspiration

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King Gillette’s safety razor with a replaceable blade, 1905. King Camp Gillette developed the disposable blade safety razor during the 1890s with engineer William Emery Nickerson. Gillette produced the first safety razors and disposable blades in 1903 and, by the end of 1904, had produced 40,000 razors and over 12 million blades. In 1999, Gillette made nearly $10 billion in sales in over 200 countries. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Gillette family had moved to New York City after the Great Chicago Fire, and Gillette’s father worked as a patent agent, so King was exposed to the idea of inventions from an early age. The idea of inventing something was always on his mind, but in the meantime, he needed to help his family and make a living, so he began to work as a salesman. In his free time, he played around with different ideas for inventions and filed a few patents by the time he reached his mid-30s. Unfortunately, none of his ideas managed to stick.

Unique Business Views

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(Original Caption) Razor King Returns from Orient on Record-Breaking Liner. San Francisco, Calif.: Left to right, King W.C. Gillette, Safety Razor manufacturer, being greeted by his son King C. Gillette Jr., when the former returned from the Orient on the S.S. Tatsuta Maru recently. The N.Y.K. vessel made a record-breaking trans-Pacific maiden voyage to this city. Gillette has just completed a world tour during which he studied business conditions in the Far East.

As he was approaching the age of 40, King Camp Gillette wasn’t a happy man. Years of working hard but seeing no real rewards for his efforts had disillusioned him, and he had a very negative view of capitalist society on the whole. While his parents had become very successful in their work, he was struggling day after day. Described as a Utopian Socialist, King wrote and published a book called The Human Drift in which he argued against capitalism and suggested a fairer balance of wealth and more cooperation between people. By this point, Gillette had also met and married his wife, Lantie, and had his only child, King Gaines Gillette.

The Idea

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A rectangular box of walnut phenolic (bakelite) with hinged lid, with a Gillette safety razor and blade container containing two packets of razor blades. King Camp Gillette (1855-1932) developed the disposable blade safety razor during the 1890s with engineer William Emery Nickerson. Gillette produced the first safety razors and disposable blades in 1903 and, by the end of 1904, had produced 40,000 razors and over 12 million blades. In 1999, Gillette made nearly $10 billion in sales in over 200 countries. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Gillette later went to work in a cork company, and it was there that the idea for his iconic safety razor was born. His boss, who knew that Gillette liked to try inventing things, encouraged him to make something that would be used and then discarded, resulting in repeat purchases and low production costs. Gillette thought a lot about what his employer had told him and this simple bit of advice turned out to have a significant impact on his life. While shaving one day, he was frustrated by the dull blade on his razor and quickly came up with the idea of a razor that didn’t need to be sharpened, but could have its blades replaced.

Making The Blades

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A Packaging containing Blue Gillette razor blades. The American inventor, King Camp Gillette (1855-1932) developed the first disposable-blade safety razor during the 1890s with engineer William Emery Nickerson. The Gillette company sold the first safety razors and disposable blades in 1903 and, by the end of 1904, had produced 40,000 razors and over 12 million blades. The double-edged razor was also introduced in the same year. In 1999, Gillette made nearly $10 billion from sales in over 200 countries. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Gillette knew that his idea was a good one, but having a solid idea is only the first step in crafting an invention. He had no experience in metallurgy and needed some expert advice, so got in touch with William Emery Nickerson. Nickerson used Gillette’s drawings and ideas to come up with a way of mass-producing blades. It took five years in total, but eventually, Gillette and Nickerson were able to form the American Safety Razor Company in 1901 and start producing the blades for sale in 1903. The safety razor already existed, but Gillette’s blades changed the game, giving his razors a considerable profit margin.

The Sales Technique

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ORIGINAL CAPTION READS: ‘The New Improved Gillette Safety Razor.’ Color advertisement dated 1/13/1920.

In the first year, Gillette sold 51 razors and 168 blades. By the second year, he’d sold over 90,000 razors and more than 120,000 blades. His safety razors were a smash success, and the key to it all was good business. Initially, he sold the razors for quite a lot of money, but he later tried out the ‘razor and blades model’ in which razors were given away for free, at a loss to the company, to boost blade sales and earn way more customers. There’s a widely-believed myth that it was Gillette himself who came up with this idea. In reality, his competitors had already invented it, but he was the one to perfect it.

Market Domination

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A Photograph of the First Safety Razor Invented by King C Gillette, circa 1901. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Whenever a new invention comes out and becomes successful, copycats and competitors will do all they can to try and take a slice of that success. Gillette had a lot of rivals and competitors, but due to his shrewd business sense and the speed at which his company had grown, he was able to outmatch them all. He had to spend a lot of cash and effort in protecting his patents and even buying out his rivals, but by 1910, his brand was by far the dominant force in the razor business, and he had millions of dollars to his name.

Later Life

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Advertisement for the Gillette Safety Razor by the Gillette Sales Company in Boston, Massachusetts, 1911. (Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

During his later years, Gillette began to be recognized wherever he went. Many people were surprised to see him and learn that he’d invented the company, with a lot of people assuming his face was just a random marketing tool put on the packaging. In spite of all this success, he still retained his anti-capitalism stance and even vainly tried to tempt the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, into bringing his utopian plans to life. He also spent a lot of cash on property in his later years, losing a lot of money after the crash of 1929, and left most of the running of his company to others. In 1932, he died at the age of 77.

Legacy

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Gillette employees at a shaving test lab in Boston test out the latest developments in men’s razors. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

As we all know, the Gillette brand did not die with King Camp Gillette. It continued to go from strength to strength, ultimately resulting in a $57 billion purchase in 2005 by the Procter & Gamble Company and ensuring that Gillette’s razor blade legacy would live on. Another aspect of the great inventor’s legacy was his Southern California ranch. The King Gillette Ranch was repurchased in 1926 and remains in use to this day, having been owned by several celebrities over the years including Bob Hope. These days, the ranch is used as a public park and for the filming of TV shows like ‘The Biggest Loser.’

Gillette Today

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Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: (From L to R) Swiss tennis player Roger Federer, French football player Thierry Henry and US golfer Tiger Woods take part in a promotion for US razor giant Gillette 04 February 2007 in Dubai. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

King Camp Gillette may have died in the 1930s, but his legacy lived on through the 20th century and into the new millennium. Gillette remains one of the dominant brands in the safety razor market in the modern era and is worth billions of dollars. The brand has been hugely successful over the years through clever marketing and big money partnerships with successful sporting stars like tennis ace Roger Federer and golfing legend Tiger Woods. And it’s not just in English-speaking countries either. Gillette is a recognized brand name all over the world, offering a long line of razors and related products to millions of people. King Camp Gillette would surely be very proud to see how far his company has come.