Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade

The success of the first shaving razor with a disposable blade allowed the Gillette Safety Razor Company to become an important firm in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1895, King Camp Gillette first formulated the idea of a shaving razor with a disposable blade. Gillette spent years drawing different models, and finally Steven Porter, a machinist and associate of Gillette, created from those drawings the first three such razors that worked. Gillette soon founded the Gillette Safety Razor Company, which became the leading seller of disposable razor blades in the United States. Gillette razor
Inventions;disposable razor blades
Razor blades
Gillette Safety Razor Company
[kw]Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade (Fall, 1903)
[kw]Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade, Gillette (Fall, 1903)
[kw]First Razor with a Disposable Blade, Gillette Markets the (Fall, 1903)
[kw]Razor with a Disposable Blade, Gillette Markets the First (Fall, 1903)
[kw]Disposable Blade, Gillette Markets the First Razor with a (Fall, 1903)
[kw]Blade, Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable (Fall, 1903)
Gillette razor
Inventions;disposable razor blades
Razor blades
Gillette Safety Razor Company
[g]United States;Fall, 1903: Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade[00780]
[c]Inventions;Fall, 1903: Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade[00780]
[c]Trade and commerce;Fall, 1903: Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade[00780]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Fall, 1903: Gillette Markets the First Razor with a Disposable Blade[00780]
Gillette, King Camp
Painter, William
Porter, Steven
Nickerson, William Emery
Joyce, John

George Gillette, King Camp Gillette’s father, had been a newspaper editor, a patent agent, and an inventor. He never invented a very successful product, but he loved to experiment. He encouraged all of his sons to figure out how things work and how to improve on them. King was always inventing new things and had many patents, but for a long time he was unsuccessful in turning any of them into profitable businesses.

King Camp Gillette.

(Library of Congress)

While Gillette was working as a traveling salesperson for Crown Cork and Seal Company, William Painter, the inventor of the crown cork, presented him with a formula for making a fortune: Invent something that would constantly need to be replaced. Painter’s crown cork, used to cap beer and soda bottles, was a tin cap covered with cork that formed a tight seal over a bottle. Each crown cork could be used only once, so soda and beer companies needed a steady supply.

Gillette took Painter’s advice and began thinking about everyday items that needed to be replaced often. After owning a Star safety razor for some time, King realized that the razor blade had not been improved for a long time. He studied all the razors on the market and found that both the common straight razor and the safety razor featured a heavy V-shaped piece of steel, sharpened on one side. King reasoned that a thin piece of steel sharpened on both sides would give a better shave and could be thrown away once it became dull. The idea of the disposable razor blade had been born.

After making several drawings of the kind of razor he envisioned, Gillette made a wooden model to explain his idea more clearly. His first attempt to construct a working model was unsuccessful, as the steel used for the blade was too flimsy. Steven Porter, a Boston machinist, decided to try to make Gillette’s razor from his drawings. He produced three razors, and in the summer of 1899 King Camp Gillette was the first man to shave with a disposable razor blade.

In the early 1900’s, most people considered a razor to be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Many fathers handed down their razors to their sons. Straight razors needed constant and careful attention to keep them sharp. The thought of throwing a razor in the garbage after several uses was contrary to how people thought about razors. If Gillette’s razor had not provided a much less painful and faster shave than previous razors, it is unlikely the disposable blade would have been a success. Even with the new razor’s advantages, public opinion against the product was still difficult to overcome.

Financing a company to produce the razor also proved to be a major obstacle. Gillette did not have the money himself, and potential investors were skeptical, both because of public perceptions of the product and because of the manufacturing process that was expected to be required. Mass production appeared to be impossible, and the disposable razor would never be profitable if it had to be produced using the methods required to manufacture its predecessor.

William Emery Nickerson, an expert machine inventor, had looked at Gillette’s razor and said it was impossible to create a machine to produce it. He was convinced to reexamine the idea, however, and he finally invented a machine that could create a workable blade. In the process, Nickerson changed Gillette’s original model, improving the handle and frame so that it would better support the thin steel blade.

In the meantime, Gillette was busy getting his patent assigned to the newly formed American Safety Razor Company, owned by Gillette and his partners Jacob Heilborn, Edward J. Stewart, and Nickerson. Gillette owned considerably more shares than anyone else. Henry Sachs provided additional capital, buying shares from Gillette.

The stockholders decided to rename the company the Gillette Safety Razor Company. It soon spent most of its money on machinery and lacked the capital needed to produce and advertise its product. The only offer the company had received was from a group of New York investors who were willing to give $125,000 in exchange for 51 percent of the company. None of the directors wanted to lose control of the company, so they rejected the offer.

John Joyce, a friend of Gillette, rescued the financially insecure new company. He agreed to buy $100,000 worth of bonds from the company for 60 cents on the dollar, purchasing the bonds gradually as the company needed money. He also received an equivalent amount of company stock. After an investment of $30,000, Joyce had the option of backing out. This deal enabled the company to start manufacturing and advertising in 1903, after spending $18,000 to perfect the machinery to produce the disposable razor blades and razors.


Originally, the company’s directors wanted to charge three dollars for a razor with twenty blades, but Joyce insisted on a price of five dollars. In 1903, five dollars was about one-third the average American’s weekly salary, and a high-quality straight razor could be purchased for about half that amount. The other directors were skeptical, but Joyce threatened to buy up all the razors if they charged three dollars and sell them himself for five dollars. He had the financial backing to make this promise good, so the directors agreed to the higher price.

The Gillette Safety Razor Company contracted with Townsend & Hunt for exclusive sales. The contract stated that Townsend & Hunt would buy 50,000 razors with twenty blades each during a period of slightly more than a year and would purchase 100,000 sets per year for the following four years. The first advertisement for the product appeared in System Magazine in early fall of 1903, offering the razors by mail order. By the end of that year, only fifty-one razors had been sold.

Because Gillette and most of the directors of the company were not salaried, Gillette had needed to keep his job as salesman with Crown Cork and Seal. At the end of 1903, he received a promotion that meant relocation from Boston to London. Gillette did not want to go and pleaded with the other directors, but they insisted that the company could not afford to put him on salary. The company decided to reduce the number of blades in a set from twenty to twelve in an effort to increase profits without noticeably raising the cost of a set. Gillette resigned the title of company president and left for England.

Shortly thereafter, Townsend & Hunt changed its name to the Gillette Sales Company, and three years later the sales company sold out to the parent company for $300,000. Sales of the new type of razor were increasing rapidly in the United States, and Joyce wanted to sell patent rights to European companies for a small percentage of sales. Gillette thought that would be a horrible mistake and quickly traveled back to Boston. He had two goals: to stop the sale of patent rights, based on his conviction that the foreign market would eventually be very lucrative, and to become salaried by the company. He accomplished both goals and soon moved back to Boston.

Despite the fact that Joyce and Gillette had been good friends for a long time, their business views often differed. Gillette set up a holding company in an effort to take back controlling interest in the Gillette Safety Razor Company. He borrowed money and convinced his allies in the company to invest in the holding company, and he eventually regained control and was reinstated as president of the company. One clear disagreement was that Gillette wanted to relocate the company to Newark, New Jersey, and Joyce thought such a move would be a waste of money. Gillette authorized company funds to be invested in a Newark site, but the idea was later dropped, costing the company a large amount of capital. Gillette was not a very wise businessman, and he made many such costly mistakes. Joyce even accused Gillette of deliberately trying to keep the stock price low so that Gillette could purchase more stock.

Joyce eventually bought out Gillette, who retained his title as president but had little say over company business. With Gillette out of a management position, the company became more stable and more profitable. The biggest problem the company faced was that it would soon lose its patent rights and thus be vulnerable to competition. The company’s leaders realized they could compete with the lower-priced disposables that would inevitably enter the market either by cutting prices (and therefore profits) or by creating a new line of even better razors. They opted for the latter strategy; weeks before the patent expired, the Gillette Safety Razor Company introduced a new line of razors.

During World War I and World War II, the company garnered big boosts in sales by contracting with the government to supply razors to almost all the troops. These transactions also served to introduce thousands of young men to the Gillette razor, many of whom continued to use Gillettes after they returned from war.

Aside from its shaky start, the company experienced its worst financial difficulties during the Great Depression. Most Americans simply could not afford Gillette blades, and many used blades for extended periods and then resharpened them rather than throwing them away and buying new ones. If it had not been for foreign markets, the company would not have shown a profit during the Great Depression. Gillette’s obstinance about not selling patent rights to foreign investors proved to be an excellent decision.

Gillette featured many celebrity endorsements in its advertising, especially from well-known baseball players. The company also sponsored sporting events. With the advent of television, before it became too expensive for one company to sponsor an entire event, Gillette was the exclusive advertiser during World Series games, various boxing matches, the Kentucky Derby, and football bowl games. Sponsoring these events was costly, but sports spectators were the typical Gillette customers.

The Gillette Company eventually created many products that complemented its lines of razors and blades, including shaving cream, women’s razors, and electric razors. The company also expanded into products such as women’s cosmetics, writing utensils, deodorant, and wigs. The company had learned during the Depression that a one-product company is less stable than one with a more diverse product line, especially in a volatile market. Gillette continued to thrive by following the principles the company had used from the start. The majority of Gillette’s profits came from foreign markets, and its employees looked to improve products and find opportunities in other departments as well as their own. Gillette razor
Inventions;disposable razor blades
Razor blades
Gillette Safety Razor Company

Further Reading

  • Adams, Russell B., Jr. King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. Biography of King Camp Gillette provides complete details about the Gillette Company, including the company’s major investments and profits.
  • Dowling, Tim. Inventor of the Disposable Culture: King Camp Gillette, 1855-1932. London: Faber & Faber, 2001. Brief biography describes the development of the disposable razor blade as well as Gillette’s social utopian philosophical leanings.
  • “Gillette: Blade-Runner.” Economist 327 (April 10, 1993): 68. Discusses the Gillette Company’s response to competition in the razor and pen markets. Describes acquisitions, improved products, and investments in better manufacturing.
  • Maremont, Mark. “A New Equal Right: The Close Shave.” BusinessWeek, March 29, 1993, 58-59. Discusses the Gillette Company’s introduction of a new and very successful product, the Sensor razor for women.

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