News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 11, 2013

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSON: The birth of the disposable razor blade

Bruce Kauffmann
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — What millions of Americans (including me) have dreamed of — staring at your bathroom mirror when suddenly you’re hit with a brilliant idea destined to make you rich — actually happened to the man who died this week (July 9) in 1932.

While standing before his mirror shaving one day, King Camp Gillette, then a traveling salesman for a bottle-cap company, decided that what the world really needed was a razor blade that did not require constant professional “stropping” (resharpening) but rather could be used until it was dull and then tossed away.

Gillette thought that if he sold the razor at a reasonable price his profits would come from the subsequent sale of millions of disposable blades.

Yet if the idea was brilliant, the execution posed a challenge because at the time (the late 1800s) thin, sharp steel was nearly impossible to produce cheaply enough to turn into a profitable blade. It was not until Gillette met an inventor named William Nickerson that the theory behind a disposable blade became reality. Nickerson, a brilliant engineer, finally developed a blade with a sharp edge that would fit in a special razor holder — the precursor of today’s disposable razors.

As a result, in 1901 Gillette and Nickerson formed the Gillette Safety Razor Co.

Ironically, another challenge for Gillette was convincing Americans that it was all right to throw away their blades.

In the early 1900s (as throughout most of their history) Americans were prone to save everything they bought, and if they couldn’t continue to use it for its original purpose, they would find another use for it.

To that end, many local barbers, fearing the loss of their shaving business to Gillette’s disposable blade, even offered resharpening services for Gillette’s original razor, which would have threatened his expected profits on the sale of new blades.

Ultimately, however, Gillette’s throwaway razors began selling, and after the U.S. government issued his razors to the entire armed services during World War I, resulting in the sale of some 3.5 million razors and 35 million blades by war’s end, Gillette had finally become the millionaire he dreamed of while staring at his bathroom mirror so many years before.

But there is an amusing postscript.

The story goes that once Nickerson and Gillette realized they had developed a workable disposable razor, they began debating what to call it. Certainly Nickerson, who had actually turned the dream into reality, had as much right as Gillette did to name the razor after himself. But, to his credit, even Nickerson understood that including the word “nick” in the name of a product that involved a blade and a person’s face was, from a marketing standpoint, probably a bad idea.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.