The Makings of a King: The Early Years of King Gillette

He had spent his entire life tinkering with ideas, most of which the rest of the world would call him crazy for. It was not until King Gillette was in his 40s that he would patent and begin to sell his disposable safety razor. It was an invention that made him a household name and revolutionized the shaving industry in the process. Today, Global Gillette continues to rank as one of the most dominant brands in the industry.

King Camp Gillette was born on January 6, 1855 in the small central Wisconsin town of Fond du Lac. He had three older brothers and two sisters. His parents, George Wolcott Gillette and Fanny Lemira Camp were both inventors in their own rights. As a result, the Gillette kids were encouraged to be inquisitive, to be hands on, and to take things apart to learn how they work.

When Gillette was four years old his family moved to Chicago, Illinois in the hopes of achieving a better life. His father opened up a hardware store, but its promise was soon destroyed. In 1871, the great Chicago fire devastated the business and forced the Gillette family to move once again.

This time, they chose New York City, where Gillette’s father became a patent agent. Conversations around the Gillette family’s dinner table always revolved around the various inventions that had come across his desk during the day. With each passing year, the young Gillette was growing more and more inspired to invent something of his own.

At 17 years old, Gillette left school and began making his living as a traveling salesman. Although it was a far cry from his dream job, it provided a steady income and also allowed him to flex his inventor’s muscle; with each product that Gillette sold door-to-door, he tried his hand at improving them in some way.

By 1890, Gillette had become increasingly disappointed with his life. He had four patents to his name but none had achieved much success. “They made money for others, but seldom for myself, for I was unfortunately situated not having much time and little money with which to promote my inventions,” he said. On top of that was the dissatisfaction of knowing his parents were much more successful than him. His mother had even published the “White House Cookbook”, a compilation of her own recipes which remains in print to this day.

Gillette’s disappointment was such that in 1894, at the age of 39, he published a book called “The Human Drift.” It was an anti-capitalist rant in which Gillette set out to criticize big business and competition as the root of all evil. As an alternative, he outlined his own ideal of a utopian, socialistic society.

By his own admission, Gillette was at rock bottom. He needed a new idea, something that would make him the success he had always dreamed of. But what, he wondered. At 40 years old, what single idea could take him to the top?

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