Inventing a Razor and Dreaming of a Utopia
King C. Gillette 1855-1932

An idea that turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry all started with a simple idea about a completely ordinary product: the safety razor.

At age 17, King Gillette was a traveling salesman who, in addition to selling his products, improved them. By the time he was 35, he had four patents and had also learned that disposable items were good for steady sales.

In 1895, while shaving, Gillette thought of the perfect product: a safety razor with a disposable blade. Shaving in the 19th century required men to use a straight-edge razor that required regular stropping on a leather strap. Gillette thought a blade that could be thrown away after use would be a popular item.

Gillette was living in Boston, so he visited metallurgists at MIT who told him his idea of a sharp edge on a small square of sheet steel was impossible. Six years later Gillette found an engineer, William Emery Nickerson (a MIT-trained inventor), who could produce such a blade. Nickerson and Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Company, which was soon renamed for Gillette.

The product was introduced in 1901, and men were persuaded to buy Gillette's safety razor that required a one-time purchase of the razor handle and replaceable razor heads. Gillette achieved international celebrity with his image on every package of Gillette blades.

Now a millionaire, Gillette still dreamed and invented. He wrote books promoting a socialist utopia and presented plans for pollution-free cities. Unlike his razor, these ideas never caught on. Eventually his personal fortune was destroyed by the stock market crash of 1929, patent battles, and corporate infighting.

The Gillette Company, now an international company with a broad line of personal care products, is still headquartered in Boston's Back Bay where Gillette lived when he invented the safety razor. The company still produces razors at its large plant in South Boston, located less than a mile from the first shop above a fish market on Atlantic Avenue.

 King Camp Gillette 1855-1932: Inventor of the Disposable Culture
by Tim Dowling, 2002