I was doom-scrolling through Twitter the other evening when I came across an innocent black and white photo of the Gillette factory from the early 20th century. And I know the building now reads “World Shaving Headquarters” in huge glowing letters but it never occurred to me to wonder if Southie really was the home of Gillette and what exactly a “Gillette” even is. A “Gillette” is a person — King Camp Gillette, to be exact, and he is the subject of this CiS History Lesson!
King Camp Gillette was born in 1855 in Wisconsin but was raised in Chicago. He worked for a hardware wholesaler and became a traveling salesman. He worked around Chicago, London, and New York, but he moved to Boston in 1894. At that point he worked for the Crown Cork and Seal Company, which was based in Baltimore. This is interesting to our story because the Crown Cork and Seal Company was started by inventor William Painter who patented the ‘crown cork’ aka the first bottle cap!!! Bottle caps, which got used once and then were tossed into the trash, were on the vanguard of disposable products. Mr. Painter told Gillette to think of a product “which once used, is thrown away, and the customer keeps coming back for more — and with every additional customer you get, you are building a foundation for profit.” Hmmmmm, I wonder what he’s going to create based on that advice!?!
And what does King Camp Gillette do? He gets an idea one morning while shaving, which back in the 19th century, was a process. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, in the 1800s “Straight steel razors were widely popular. Men had to rub the blade against a usually leather or canvas strap, called stropping, to realign the fine metal edge and remove any corrosion before each shave. The blades also needed to be honed periodically, a sharpening process that was often done by a barber.” Yikes!
King Camp Gillette thought he could make something better and he began to work with scientists at MIT to create his vision of a product with endless potential for profit – the disposable razor. He and the MIT engineers had problems with making the blades thin and sharp enough to be used on a disposable razor though. It took a few years but eventually Gillette met William Nickerson and he solved the metal issue and together they founded the American Safety Razor factory and opened for business!
In 1904, the company renamed itself Gillette after its founder/creator and King Camp Gillette’s image was even used on the product’s packaging. Gillette, the company, went on to huge sales and global dominance. For King Camp Gillette, the person, the future wasn’t quite so bright; the Great Depression decimated his fortune and he died in 1932 in Los Angeles.
In 2005, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette for 57 BILLION DOLLARS and Gillette now is a business unit of P & G. If you are interested in seeing King Camp Gillette’s prototype check out the Gillette website! So Southie – innovation, the disposable revolution, and a man named King Camp Gillette – who knew?!
Editor’s note: First, why has no one named their child “King Camp” yet. Second, if you grew up in Southie back in the day, you didn’t buy your razors at Osco’s, you bought them hot at a bar.