One summer morning in 1895 an ambitious traveling salesman found that the edge of his straight razor had dulled. King Camp Gillette (1855–1932) later said that the idea for an entirely new kind of razor with a disposable blade flashed into his mind as he looked in irritation at his dull blade. Gillette had been searching for the right product, one that had to be used and replaced regularly, around which to build a business. His innovation in shaving technology was just such a product. Another safety razor, the Star, was already on the market at the time, but like the straight razor it was meant to replace, its blade needed to be sharpened with a strop before each use and eventually had to be professionally sharpened. Gillette envisioned an inexpensive, double-edged blade that could be clamped over a handle, used until it was dull, and then discarded.
Gillette spent the next six years trying to perfect his safety razor. The scientists and toolmakers he consulted were pessimistic and thought the idea was impractical. Gillette did not give up—he was 40 years old at the time and a successful salesman, inventor, and writer. In 1901 he joined forces with William Nickerson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology educated machinist. Nickerson developed production processes to make Gillette's idea a reality while Gillette formed the American Safety Razor Company to raise the estimated $5,000 they needed to begin manufacturing the razor. Production of the razor began early in 1903.
The renamed Gillette Safety Razor Company began advertising its product in October 1903, with the first ad appearing in Systems Magazine. The company sold 51 razor sets at $5 each and an additional 168 blades, originally at 20 for $1, during the first year. In 1904 Gillette received a patent on the safety razor; sales rose to 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades that year. In the following year the company bought a sixstory building in South Boston. During the years leading up to World War I (1914–1918) Gillette steadily increased earnings through print advertisements that emphasized how with his razor men could shave themselves under any conditions without cutting or irritation.
During World War I the U.S. government ordered 3.5 million razors and 36 million blades to supply all its troops. In order to meet military supply schedules, shifts worked around the clock and Gillette hired over 500 new employees. Gillette thus introduced a huge pool of potential customers to the still new idea of self-shaving with a safety razor. After the war ex-servicemen needed blades to fit the razors they had been issued in the service.
In 1921 Gillette's patent on the safety razor expired, but the company was ready for the change. It introduced the "new improved" Gillette razor, which sold at the old price, and entered the low-priced end of the market with the old-style razor, renamed the Silver Brownie razor. Gillette also gave away razor handles as premiums with other products, developing customers for the more profitable blades. Expansion and growth continued.
In the early 1930s Gillette made a bold advertising move: the company admitted that the new blade it had brought out in 1930 was of poor quality. The company then announced what became its most recognizable product, the Gillette Blue Blade, promising uniformly high quality. The Blue Blade kept Gillette the leader in the field, but profits remained disappointing throughout the Great Depression (1929–1939), as men increasingly turned to bargain blades.
In 1939 the company began heavy broadcast sports advertising and purchased the radio broadcast rights to the 1939 World Series for $100,000. Despite a short series in which the Cincinnati Reds lost four straight games to the New York Yankees, sales of Gillette's World Series Special razor sets were more than four times the company's estimates. This success encouraged more sports advertising. By 1942 Gillette-sponsored events were grouped together as the "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports." Although it eventually included college football's Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, and horse racing's Kentucky Derby, in addition to the World Series and baseball's All-Star Game, the "Cavalcade of Sports" became best known for bringing boxing to U.S. audiences. Sports programs continued to remain an important vehicle for Gillette advertising.
During World War II (1939–1945) foreign production and sales declined, but domestic production more than made up for those losses. Almost the entire production of razors and blades went to the military. In addition Gillette manufactured fuel-control units for military plane carburetors. The backlog of civilian demand after the war led to consecutive record sales until 1957.
The company changed its name to the Gillette Company during the 1950s, at the same time when it began diversifying its product line. By the end of the twentieth century half of the company's profits were still derived from shaving equipment. Gillette generated the remainder from a variety of consumer product areas, including writing instruments (Paper Mate, Parker, and Waterman brands), correction products (Liquid Paper), toothbrushes and other oral care products (Oral-B), alkaline batteries (Duracell), and toiletries (Right Guard, Dry Idea, White Rain). The company's products were sold in more than 200 countries and territories, with more than 60 percent of sales occurring outside the United States.
See also: King Camp Gillette
Adams, Russell B., Jr. King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.
Flaherty, Robert J. "The Patient Honing of Gillette." Forbes, February 16, 1981.
Gillette Company. "The Gillette Company, 1901–1976." Gillette News, 1977.
Grant, Linda. "Gillette Knows Shaving—and How to Turn out Hot New Products." Fortune, October 14, 1996.
McKibben, Gordon. Cutting Edge: Gillette's Journey to Global Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998.
Miller, William H. "Gillette's Secret to Sharpness." Industry Week, January 3, 1994.
Ricardo-Campbell, Rita. Resisting Hostile Takeovers: The Case of Gillette. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.
Symonds, William C. "Gillette's Edge: The Secret of a Great Innovation Machine? Never Relax." Business Week, January 19, 1998.
The traditional American barbershop was an emporium where men congregated to have their hair cut, faces shaved, and fingernails manicured. Barbershops, particularly those in small towns, also served a wider purpose within the community. They were places where men gathered, relaxed, read magazines, and enjoyed each other's company while passing gossip, sharing the latest joke, talking sports and politics, and debating the events of the day.
For many centuries a man's hair was trimmed at home, usually by a servant or a family member. Shaving before the invention of the razor blade was a messy and sometimes painful affair. All this began to change in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, first with the increasing number of small towns sprouting up across the country and, later on, with the evolution of the razor blade. In the early twentieth century shaving and short hairstyles became fashionable, and a barbershop could be found on the main street of just about every small town and all over the major cities.
The traditional barbershop was distinguished from other businesses by the red and white or red, white, and blue-striped pole that stood out front. The red and white were historic symbols of the blood and bandages of surgeons, who were once called barbers; the blue was added to make the pole resemble the American flag. On the inside the barbershop was outfitted with the supplies that were necessary for a barber to practice his trade: razors; strops, or strips of leather or horsehide, for sharpening blades; shaving bowls and mugs; hair combs and brushes; soap; scissors; mirrors; popular hair tonics; barber's chairs; talcum powder; and towel steamers.
The men in barbershops occasionally sang together for their amusement, a trend that gave rise to the barbershop quartet. These musical groups performed the types of songs that were popular between the 1860s and the 1920s: tunes featuring innocent, sentimental lyrics and simple melodies that were easily harmonized. By the early 1900s the term "barbershop" was commonly used to indicate singing. An early written reference is a barbershop-style song, "Play That Barbershop Chord," published in 1910.
For decades men visited the barbershop for their daily shave; however, the evolution of the electric and the safety razor and the increasingly hectic pace of modern life combined to make shaving at home a more practical pursuit. The traditional barbershop fell out of favor in the 1960s as young men began wearing their hair longer. By the twenty-first century the traditional barbershop had been largely replaced by the modern, unisex hair salon, although barbershops still exist across the United States.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Barlow, Ronald S. The Vanishing American Barbershop. El Cajon, CA: Windmill Publishing Company, 1993.
Hunter, Mic. The Vanishing American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. Mount Horeb, WI: Face to Face Books, 1996.
Staten, Vince. Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America's Great Barbershops. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.