I spotted a vintage Gillette razor last week at a barbershop, equal parts very old and very Mad Men cool – there’s a gallery featuring a similar one below. It was incredibly different to what Gillette produces nowadays (save for, perhaps, the Guard) so I whipped out my phone to do some Googlin’.
Just how old is Gillette? Turns out, much older than I thought…
The American Safety Razor Company (later named the Gillette Safety Razor Company) was founded in 1902. That brand, ubiquitous with most of our first-ever shaves, has been around for about 111 years!
It’s lived through some of the most important moments in history; both World Wars and Nazi Germany, the assassination of Gandhi, the formation of the People’s Republic of China, the Kennedy assassination, the Clinton impeachment and the election of the first black President of the United States.
This rare Gillette Adjustable Blade (lovingly restored) was made in 1956. I’d buy a limited edition Gillette razor like this in a heartbeat. Click the dots to see more!
Founded by King C. Gillette (awesome name), Gillette was a brand built from the ground up. Having worked as a traveling salesman for brief spell, the idea of a safe razor with disposable blades came to Gillette during an auspicious morning shave. By 1903, the idea was realised (thanks to MIT-trained engineer Emery Nickerson), patented and began production at headquarters in Boston.
The Gillette HQ is still in Boston, actually. I visited the site a few years ago and it’s as much an ideas-factory now as it was then. In fact, when I was there I mistakenly glimpsed the ProGlide Styler months ahead of schedule. It was housed in a scale replica of a supermarket aisle where they assess how their products stack up against the competition (some of whom, like Schick/Wilkinson Sword, have been around since the 1920s). I wonder what’s on those shelves now…
By 1903, Gillette had sold 51 razors and 168 blades. The following year, more than 90,000 razors and 120,000 blades.
By 1908, Gillette was manufacturing across the U.S., Canada, England, France and Germany…
It was during this time that King popularised the idea of selling razors cheaply to increase the market for blades. A model that most razor brands (including Gillette) use to this day. In fact, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo use the very same strategy with their games consoles.
Once World War I rolled around (1918), Gillette took it’s next leap when they were contracted to supply the U.S Armed Forces with approximately 3.5 million razors and 32 million blades to keep our boys looking smart.
You couldn’t ask for better advertising.
From there, things snowballed:
Campaign image gallery, click to enlarge…
King Gillette's razors dominated the market (still do) and set into motion the Gillette brand we have today, where it's part of the Proctor & Gamble company.
Their vintage blades - like the one I saw at the barber shop last week - actually have a very active community of collectors and enthusiasts surrounding them. Apparently the razors were so well made that it only takes a quick sanitation (and occasionally a re-paint) to have them looking and working like new.
Just some food for thought next time you whip out your ProGlide!