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Gillette has been a household word for more than 125 years, but how much do you know about the ingenious inventor who started the company? Follow along as Tidbits brings readers an account of this corporation’s founder.

King Camp Gillette came by his creative temperament naturally, with a father who was a patent agent and seasoned mechanical tinkerer. After years of experimenting and devising her own recipes, Gillette’s mother wrote a cookbook in 1887 that remained in print for 100 years.

    When Gillette was 16, his family’s possessions were lost in Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, and the young man was compelled to go to work. He took a job as a traveling salesman, selling hardware items, all the while continuing to experiment with inventions. By 1890, he had been awarded four patents.

    During the 1890s, Gillette was working for the Crown Cork and Seal Company, and noted that the cork seals for bottle caps he was peddling for them were discarded once the bottle was opened.    When the company president learned of Gillette’s patents, he advised him to invent “something that would be used and thrown away,” ensuring a continual use by consumers.

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    After years of being on the road, Gillette was well familiar with shaving with a heavy, wedge-shaped blade fitted perpendicularly onto a handle. The blade dulled quickly and had to be sharpened every day on a leather strop, eventually becoming too worn to sharpen. In 1895, Gillette took his employer’s advice, conceiving the idea of a thin, inexpensive blade that could be thrown away and easily replaced when it grew dull.

    Gillette’s idea was to put a sharp edge on a small sheet of steel, then place a thin, double-edged steel blade between two plates held together by a “T” handle. He was quickly informed by metallurgists that it would be impossible to manufacture such a blade, since thin, cheap steel was very difficult to sharpen.    It took Gillette six years to find an MIT-educated engineer capable of transforming his vision into the mass-production of the blades from sheet metal.

    Gillette Safety Razor Company was founded in 1901, but production didn’t begin until 1903. First year sales were 51 razors and 168 blades, increasing the following year to 90,000 razors and 12.4 million blades. Although the company earned a huge profit that year, Gillette actually sold the razors at a loss, making the profits on the blades. The razor handle was a one-time purchase with a spendy price tag of $5, about half a week’s pay for the average worker. The blades were sold in multiple packages.   

•    By 1908, there were factories in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, and Germany. King Gillette’s face was a familiar one, featured on the packaging, making him recognizable internationally.

•    Blade sales in 1915 were 70 million units. In 1917, in the midst of World War I, Gillette issued all American soldiers a field razor set, financed by the U.S. Government.

•    The stock market crash of 1929 left King Gillette nearly bankrupt and the value of his corporate shares plummeted. He had also spent much of his fortune on property, and was embroiled in patent battles.

The company survived the financial crisis and continued to thrive after Gillette’s death in 1932. They added Foamy shaving cream to their line-up in 1953 and Right Guard deodorant in 1960. King Gillette would have been gratified to know his company was sold to Procter & Gamble in 2005 for $57 billion.