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Advertising, Utopia, and Commercial Idealism: The Case of King Gillette

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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In the history of American consumer society, the case of King Camp Gillette, the “Razor King,” is at once strange and typical. Gillette — named King after a friend of his father — is recognized as the inventor of the modern safety razor and the namesake of the corporation launched to produce and sell it. As a tale of individual entrepreneurial triumph, Gillette's life follows a familiar pattern: hard work, visionary zeal, ridicule and adversity, persistence, trial and error, and conspicuous success. His story also functions well as a case study in the evolution of modern corporate business practice. The commercial genius of Gillette's invention was its disposable blade, and given a product (the razor) which created its own perpetual market (for the blades), the corporation used the modern tools of patent enforcement, stock offerings, public relations, market research, distribution, technology, diversification, and especially advertising to build and maintain its market share for the last 100 years. In these respects and others, Gillette's story finds an indigenous place in business textbooks, company testimonials, and cultural mythology.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1999

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1. For the distinction between soft and hard totalizations in political criticism, see Jameson, Frederic, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), esp. 91–93Google Scholar.

2. This portrait is reproduced as a frontispiece to Adams, Russell B. Jr, King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978)Google Scholar.

3. Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas (1876), in Prose Works 1892, ed. Stovall, Floyd (New York: New York University Press, 1963): 364, 418Google Scholar.

4. Gillette, King C., The Human Drift (1894; rept. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1976), 3Google Scholar. Subsequent references to this text use the abbreviation HD followed by the page number.

5. The major sources of biographical material on Gillette are Kenneth M. Roemer, introduction to The Human Drift, by Gillette; Adams, King C. Gillette; and Spang, J. P., Look Sharp! Feel Sharp! Be Sharp! Gillette Safety Razor Company, Fifty Years, 1901–1951 (New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1951)Google Scholar. Also of use is Mansfield, Howard, “The Razor King,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology 7, no. 4 (Spring 1992): 4046Google ScholarPubMed.

6. Adams, , King C. Gillette, 1819Google Scholar.;

7. See, for example, Lears, T. J. Jackson, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic, 1994)Google Scholar; Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982)Google Scholar; Horwitz, Howard, By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Banta, Martha, Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen and Ford (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and Livingston, James, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994)Google Scholar. The work of Howard P. Segal similarly challenges binary oppositions between technology and nature by examining the inspirational effect of industrial technologies; see Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)Google Scholar and Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

8. Both Adams and Roemer point out this similarity, with Roemer discussing the parallels in detail (see Roemer, , introduction to The Human Drift, xiiixviGoogle Scholar).

9. Spang, , Look Sharp! 12Google Scholar.

10. Roemer, , introduction to The Human Drift, xivxv, original emphasisGoogle Scholar.

11. Horwitz, Howard, “The Standard Oil Trust as Emersonian Hero,” Raritan 6, no. 4 (1987): 97119Google Scholar. He elaborates the “isomorphic” affinities between transcendental idealism and “protectionist” economic ideas of the period in By the Law of Nature. See also Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America.

12. Spang, , Look Sharp! 13Google Scholar

13. Adams, , King C. Gillette, 34Google Scholar.

14. Ibid., 5–6.

15. Drawing on the insights of Max Weber, many critics have examined the influences of Protestant beliefs on commercial developments; see Weber, , The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons, Talcott (19041905; rept. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1958)Google Scholar. Campbell, Colin presents what he sees as the “other” Protestant ethic in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)Google Scholar. A provocative overview of the commercial implications of Emerson's philosophy can be found in Horwitz, , By the Law of Nature, ch. 2Google Scholar, “Transcendentalism and Protectionism.” I have argued that Emerson drew inspiration from his commercial surroundings; see ‘Working After His Thought’: The Signification of Industry in Emerson's The Conduct of Life,” American Transcendental Quarterly 7, no. 1 (1993): 4563Google Scholar.

16. Whitman, , Democratic Vistas, 421Google Scholar.

17. Emerson, , The Conduct of Life, vol. 6 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Emerson, Edward W. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19031904), 93Google Scholar.

18. Adams, , King C. Gillette, 8687Google Scholar.

19. Mansfield, Howard, Cosmopolis: Yesterday's Cities of the Future (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Urban Policy Research, 1990)Google Scholar.

20. Lears discusses factories as a “new icon of abundance” in Fables of Abundance, and Strasser, Susan also gives examples of technological modernity in 19th-century ads in Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), esp. 109–15Google Scholar. On the development of American advertising in general, see Pope, Daniel, The Making of Modern Advertising (New York: Basic, 1983)Google Scholar.

21. A reproduction of the letterhead appears in Adams, King C. Gillette.

22. Lears, , Fables of Abundance, esp. ch. 2Google Scholar, “The Modernization of Magic,” 40–74.

23. A colorful account of Procter and Gamble's early advertising, including many reproduced ads, appears in Goodrum, Charles and Dalrymple, Helen, Advertising in America: The First 200 Years (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 4954Google Scholar.

24. Lears examines in detail the transitions from patent medicine carnivalesque to more professionalized tactics; see Fables of Abundance, esp. part II, “The Containment of Carnival: Advertising and American Social Values from the Patent Medicine Era to the Consolidation of Corporate Power.”

25. Bellamy, Edward's Looking Backward (1888)Google Scholar and Equality (1898) are important examples. Peck, Bradford's The World a Department Store (1900)Google Scholar reduces such calculations of saved costs to a sort of popular slogan.

26. Adams, , King C. Gillette, 5556Google Scholar.

27. Ibid, 56.

28. These ads are reproduced in Adams, King C. Gillette (n.p.), and in Goodrum, and Dalrymple, , Advertising in America, 114–15Google Scholar.

29. Reproduced in Goodrum, and Dalrymple, , Advertising in America, 114Google Scholar.

30. Ibid, 114.

31. Lears, 's essay “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, ed. Fox, Richard Wightman and Lears, T. J. Jackson (New York: Pantheon, 1983)Google Scholar was an early attempt to examine advertising's secularization of spiritual ideas and the “pattern of unintentional collaboration” (xv) between moralist reformers and advertisers. A sociological and semiological examination of advertising's social signification can be found in Leiss, William, Kline, Stephen, and Jhally, Sut, Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products and Images of Well-Being (Toronto: Methuenrm, 1986)Google Scholar.

32. Adams, , King C. Gillette, 56Google Scholar.

33. Ibid, 85.

34. Adams gives examples of the coercive “social consciousness” genre of advertising used by Gillette, in the 1930s (King C. Gillette, 169–70)Google Scholar.

35. Ibid., 47–49.

36. Lipow, Arthur, Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

37. Lipow discusses his political assumptions explicitly and honestly; see his preface, ix–xii

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