Today is the birthday (1855) of King Camp Gillette, a US businessman who invented a best selling version of the safety razor. Several models were in existence before Gillette’s design; Gillette’s innovation was the thin, inexpensive, disposable blade of stamped steel. Gillette is widely credited with inventing the so-called razor and blades business model, where razors are sold cheaply to increase the market for blades, but in fact he adopted this model only after his competitors did.
Gillette’s ancestors came from England to Massachusetts in 1630. He was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and raised in Chicago, Illinois. While working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company in the 1890s, Gillette noticed that the bottle caps, with the cork seal he sold, was thrown away after the bottle was opened. This made him realize the value in basing a business on a product that was used a few times, then discarded. Men shaved with straight razors that needed sharpening every day using a leather strop. Thus a razor whose blade was relatively cheap and could be thrown away when it dulled would meet a real need and likely be profitable.
Safety razors had been developed in the mid-19th century, but still used a forged blade. In the 1870s, the Kampfe Brothers introduced a type of razor along these lines. Gillette improved these earlier safety-razor designs, and introduced the high-profit-margin stamped razor blade steel blade. Gillette’s razor retailed for a substantial $5 — half the average working man’s weekly pay — yet sold by the millions.
The most difficult part of development was engineering the blades, as thin, cheap steel was difficult to work and sharpen. This accounts for the delay between the initial idea and the product’s introduction. Steven Porter, a machinist working with Gillette, used Gillette’s drawings to create the first disposable razor that worked. William Emery Nickerson, an expert machinist and partner of Gillette, changed the original model, improving the handle and frame so that it could better support the thin steel blade. Nickerson designed the machinery to mass-produce the blades.
To sell the product, Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Company on September 28, 1901 (changing the company’s name to Gillette Safety Razor Company in July 1902). 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 second year, he sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades, thanks in part to Gillette’s low prices, automated manufacturing techniques and good advertising. Sales and distribution were handled by a separate company, Townsend and Hunt, which was absorbed by the parent company for $300,000 in 1906. By 1908, the corporation had established manufacturing facilities in the United States, Canada, Britain, France and Germany. Razor sales reached 450,000 units and blade sales exceeded 70 million units in 1915. In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, the company provided all American soldiers with a field razor set, paid for by the government. Gillette vetoed a plan to sell the patent rights in Europe, believing correctly that Europe would eventually provide a very large market. Gillette and a fellow director John Joyce, battled for control of the company. Gillette eventually sold out to Joyce, but his name remained on the brand. In the 1920s, as the patent expired, the Gillette Safety Razor Company emphasized research to design ever improved models, realizing that even a slight improvement would induce men to adopt it.
Gillette was also a Utopian Socialist. He published The Human Drift (1894) which advocated 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 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, with a fee of one million dollars. (Roosevelt declined the offer.) Gillette’s last book, The People’s Corporation (1924), was written with Upton Sinclair and later inspired Glen H. Taylor (1948 Progressive Party VP candidate).
In his later life he traveled extensively, and was universally recognized from his picture on the packets of razor blades. People were surprised that he was a real person rather than just a marketing image. A Gillette company history stated that in non-English speaking countries people would often ask for “the kind with the Man’s Face” blades. In the late 1920s, Gillette was known as a frequent guest of Nellie Coffman, proprietor of the Desert Inn in Palm Springs, California. He was often seen wandering about the grounds and lobby in a tattered old bathrobe. When Coffman was asked why she allowed such a low life to hang out at her establishment, she responded, “Why that is King C. Gillette. He has practically kept this place in the black the last few years.”
Gillette died bankrupt and penniless (due to the Wall Street Crash) on July 9, 1932 in Los Angeles, California. He was interred in the lower levels of the Begonia Corridor in the Great Mausoleum located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
The term “razor thin” can be attributed to Gillette’s disposable razors, and carpaccio fits the bill for today’s celebration, because it is a dish of raw meat or fish that is very thinly sliced (or pounded thin). It was invented in 1950 by Giuseppe Cipriani from Harry’s Bar in Venice and popularized during the second half of the 20th century. It was named after Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio. The beef was served with lemon, olive oil, and white truffle or Parmesan cheese. Later, the term was extended to dishes containing other raw meats or fish, thinly sliced and served with lemon or vinegar, olive oil, salt and ground pepper. Cipriani originally prepared the dish for the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he learned that the doctors had recommended that she eat raw meat and named it carpaccio after Vittore Carpaccio because of his characteristic red and white tones.
The typical Piedmont carpaccio is made with very thin slices of beef placed on a dish with lemon, olive oil, and shavings of white truffle or Parmesan cheese, and can be topped with arugula. The meat typically used for carpaccio is beef sirloin. Since this dish is served raw, the meat must be very fresh. Less commonly, reflecting Piedmont tradition, carpaccio can also be made with minced meat and garlic, called “carne cruda”.
Today the term carpaccio is sometimes used for any preparation made with thinly sliced raw meat, fish or vegetables (usually seasoned with lemon, or vinegar, olive oil, salt and ground pepper) or fruit. Carpaccio is also a popular appetizer in neighboring Friuli and Slovenia, where it is usually served on rucola with a slice of lemon, Parmesan cheese, and toasted French bread.
I usually buy beef or smoked fish for a carpaccio already sliced because my knives are not sharp enough to do a good job. To get beef razor thin your knife must be razor sharp. The lack of sharp knives in my friends’ kitchens is the bane of my existence when I go to help them cook. I have two Chinese knives that are sharp enough for most purposes, and I have a sharpening stone. But they are not made of high enough quality steel to get an edge adequate for carpaccio.