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King Camp Gillette (January 5, 1855–July 9, 1932) developed and patented the safety razor. He is incorrectly known as its original inventor, though his particular innovation for disposable safety razors (patent US775134) beat out competitors.
Born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and raised in Chicago, Illinois, King Camp Gillette's family was devastated by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
While working as a traveling salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company (the first major disposable product) to support his family in the 1890s, Gillette hit upon an idea. Earlier razor blades needed continuous sharpening, becoming worn out quickly and making them expensive. He realized that a profit could be made by selling a safety razor at a reduced price and then making a profit margin on the inexpensive disposable blades. He developed a blade made out of very thin sheet-steel. Once the blade became dull, it was discarded and replaced by a new one, using the same holder. This has been called the Razor and blades business model, and is an example of a "loss leader".
The most difficult part of the development was making the blades, as cheap thin steel was very difficult to work with and very difficult to sharpen. This accounts for the long delay between the initial idea and the first production.
In order to apply his idea, Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Company on September 28, 1901. The company's name was changed in July 1902 to Gillette Safety Razor Company. Gillette obtained a trademark registration (0056921) for his portrait and signature on the packaging. Production began in 1903 when he sold a total of 51 razors and 168 blades. The following year, 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades were sold, thanks in part to his low prices, automated manufacturing techniques and good advertising. By 1908 they had established manufacturing facilities in the United States, Canada, England, France and Germany. Razor sales reached 450,000 units and blade sales exceeded 70 million units in 1915. In 1918 when the U.S. entered World War I the company provided all the soldiers with a field razor set, paid for by the government.
Gilette was also a Utopian Socialist, publishing a book The Human Drift in 1894 advocating that all industry should be taken over by a single corporation owned by the public, and that everyone in the US should live in a giant city called Metropolis powered by the Niagara Falls. A later book, World Corporation (1910), was a prospectus for a company set up to create this vision. He offered Theodore Roosevelt the presidency of the company. His last book, The People's Corporation was written with Upton Sinclair and later inspired Glen H. Taylor.
In his later life he travelled extensively, and was universally recognised from his picture on the packets of razor blades. People were surprised that he was a real person rather than just a marketing image.
Gillette died in Los Angeles, California, and is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. He was almost bankrupt at his death, after spending large amounts of money on property, and due to the fall in the value of his shares in the Great Depression.
The Gillette Company continues to thrive and sells products under a variety of brand names including Gillette, Braun, Oral-B, and Duracell.
Improved and developed
Various safety razors were developed in the mid-1800s but still used a forged blade. The Kampfe Brothers developed in the mid-1870s a type of razor along these lines. Gillette improved these earlier designs of the safety razor and also introduced his true innovation of inexpensive, high profit-margin stamped steel blades (along with his unique business model).
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