King Camp Gillette: The Razor King with dreams of a Corporate Socialist Utopia
July 22, 2010 1:05 PM   Subscribe

King Camp Gillette is remembered for an empire built on giving away one half of his product to increase sales for the other half, but the year prior to moment of inspiration that lead to disposable razors, Gillette published a book with a larger scope: The Human Drift. The work of Utopian social planning was focused on a nation-city called Metropolis, to be powered by Niagara Falls. Gillette followed the first book with a second in 1910, World Corporation, which was a revised vision for a better world, now focused as a corporation formed in the Arizona Territory that would grow to encompass the world, with former President Theodore Roosevelt to head up as corporation president. Roosevelt declined the position, and Gillette's Utopian dreams faded.

In 1894, Gillette envisioned a utopia, which was a common dream in the age of increased industrial production. The next year a more financially lucrative idea hit: a disposable razor blade made of thin metal, to replace the current standard thick metal blade that would need frequent sharpening. After years of inquiry, Gillette teamed with engineer/inventor William Nickerson to create the replaceable safety blade. Gillette was a man with, as he said, "two distinct entities, one devoted to earning a living and the other to the problem of how to overcome the difficulties of the industrial world."

His dream was for a densely developed community to house the all people of the United States, to be controlled as one joint corporation free from the corrosive effect of capitalist competition on society, where everyone would be members of the United Company. While this dream lived on, the Gillette Safety Razor was patented and sales were on the rise.

Gillette's views were also penned a tome written by Melvin L. Severy, entitled Gillette's Social Redemption, published in 1907. The book was to be "[a] review of the world-wide conditions as they exist to-day, offering an entirely new suggestion for the remedy of the evils they exhibit," which the preface states straight-off "is not intended to be interesting, nor has it been written with the idea that it will be consecutively read from cover to cover." The goal was lofty: "It has been penned in the hope and belief that it will for a substantial basis for one of the greatest social changes ever known." Though in the end, as The New York Times review noted, the book only provides a hint at details for how to address the ills of the world that were listed in previous 700 pages. In 1908, Severy wrote the follow-up to his earlier work on Gillete's views, entitled Gillette's Industrial Solution, which placed Gillette's World Corporation as the answer to the world's ills.

Those two books lead up to the 1910 publishing of World Corporation, which was Gillette's proposal for a trust that would buy up land and production facilities. By putting Gillette’s ideas into practice, the trust would return huge profits, eventually displacing all other business entities, at which point the whole world would share in the rewards. The beginning of this book includes a notice that the past publications by Gillette and Severy are no longer "considered necessary" by Mr. Gillette, and that this new publication including the new corporation's "Charter, By-laws and Prospectus, and the opinions expressed, should be read a self-contained proposition." The World Corporation would require no "long periods of education" as were necessary with new legislation, but "each additional individual converted to its purpose will add immediate strength to the organization."

Gillette registered the World Corporation in the Arizona Territory and offered its presidency to Theodore Roosevelt, recently retired as President of the United States, for a million dollars for a four-year term, but Roosevelt declined. Gillette's next effort was to woo Upton Sinclair to his ideals, and Sinclair was able to set up a number of meetings between Gillette and Henry Ford, but the divergent economic and political beliefs would not meet. Sinclair continued to work with Gillette, and in 1924, Gillette published The People's Corporation with help from Sinclair. There is no online digital copy for perusal and review, but TIME Magazine has a book review, which starts off with a charming line: "The kind of man who conceives an ideal order of society is, it seems, predestined to have the befoliaged type of face." The review includes some clips of text that display Gillette's concern for lost efforts and production due to lack of coordination and preparation for war and the economic paralysis following war.

Gillette took his socialist Utopian dreams with him to the end. King Camp Gillette used the safety razor as an example of how efficiency could make the world a better place. But society was not the razor writ large. Reforming society was not merely a matter of good design and aggressive marketing.

Bonus media at the Internet Archive: three versions of The World Corporation (1, 2, 3) and various versions of Severy's writings.
posted by filthy light thief (9 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
fortunately, Arizona was able to become a utopian dream anyway...
posted by RockyChrysler at 1:09 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, great post. And to think it's right next to one about drinking liquor out of dead animals.
posted by DaddyNewt at 1:09 PM on July 22, 2010

This is a great post. Really nice, filthy light thief.
posted by nola at 1:15 PM on July 22, 2010

I'll think I'll save a few of your links for later, just to savor my anticipation. Thanks!
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:27 PM on July 22, 2010

See also: The Razor King, American Heritage, 1992.
posted by meehawl at 1:38 PM on July 22, 2010

Great post. Fascinating. What was the disconnect between Ford and Gillette?
posted by rainy at 1:54 PM on July 22, 2010

And to think it's right next to one about drinking liquor out of dead animals.

And before the Fast Food Arms Race of really large meat+cheese sandwiches.

See also: The Razor King, American Heritage, 1992.

Sourced a number of times in this write-up, and linked twice ("two distinct entities, ... " and But society was not the razor writ large....). That's the best write-up I've found on Gillette, but the other links add bits and pieces here and there, though they may be corruptions of other information sources.

What was the disconnect between Ford and Gillette?

Though it wasn't spelled out in anything I've read, but I'd image that most corporate moguls who made their fortune in the realms of competitive business wouldn't be too supportive of a socialist nation or world, where there were no more corporations but the One Corporation that managed all goods and transactions. Gillette was an odd one in his dichotomy, and I don't think there are (m)any like-minded Captains of Industry.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:12 PM on July 22, 2010

Gillette wanted his utopia to be in soothing pastels, but Ford said he can have a utopia painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:13 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know it's juvenile of me, but the name King Camp Gillette would be perfect for a drag king or porn star (or maybe both).
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:49 PM on July 22, 2010

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