One of the chapters in Stuff Matters is devoted to steel, and Mark Miodownik mentions the Gillette safety razor blade and its inventor King Camp Gillette, as being responsible for the "democratization of shaving."
King (yes, that really was his first name) Gillette was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in the mid-nineteenth century to parents who were tinkers. The family settled in Chicago but when their hardware business was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, they moved to New York. King Gillette became a traveling salesman selling miscellaneous wares to which he constantly made improvements. It was during this phase that Gillette realized greater sales could be had from disposable products. While on the road, Gillette used a safety razor called the Star Safety Razor. It consisted of a base handle which could be unscrewed and a shaving blade attached. The blade was perpendicular and was clamped tight in a wedge between two pieces of metal. It was an improvement in that it afforded safety and the common man could use it fairly easily — instead of depending on a barber for services. Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the razor: "It was, in short, a lawn-mower for the masculine growth of which the proprietor wishes to rid his countenance."
The problem with these razors was that the blade needed to be constantly sharpened and, after a while, got dull. What if there was a material that could be thin and sharp and work with the same principles as a basic safety razor? While the metallurgists at MIT whom Gillette approached were initially convinced that such a material was impossible to come by, it was an MIT graduate, William Nickerson, who combined forces with Gillette and produced a thin sheet of steel with double-edged sharpness. Together, they founded the American Safety Razor Company, which later became the Gillette Safety Razor Company.
The first iteration of Gillette's safety razor was one where the stem stayed the same but just the blade could be thrown out; King Gillette was granted a patent for this in 1904. In a method similar to the popular contemporary business strategy of "selling the printer cheap but getting them on the toner," this allowed Gillette to hook customers with the base unit and then sell multiples of the razor blade. A razor plus one blade was priced at $5, and 20 blades — each in a decorative wrapper bearing King Gillette's visage, printed in ink the color of money — cost $1. The best part of the device was that the small steel blade was cheap enough that it could be thrown away when dull and replaced with a new one. Sales were shaky in the first year (1903) with 51 razors and 168 blades. But by the end of 1904, Gillette had sold more than 90,000 razors and 10,000 blade packets. An immediate improvement was the "twist to open" handle which made blade-changing much easier. The modern-day versions where the entire unit (both blade and stem) can be disposed of, came much later. Other inventions by Gillette engineers also included the blade dispenser, the pivoting head and twin-blade models.
It is ironic that despite resounding success in the shaving market, King Gillette died in 1932 nearly penniless due to financial troubles that had started well before the Great Depression. The company, however, has kept its place as the key player in the market. Even though Procter & Gamble bought the business in 2005, Gillette continues to maintain its headquarters in Boston, the city where King Gillette first set up the business. The company pays $7 million annually for naming rights to The Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass, which hosts the home games for the NFL's New England Patriots.
This article was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for the
March 2015 paperback release.
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