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


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.

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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. 91–93.

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).

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

4. Gillette King C., The Human Drift (1894; rept. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1976), 3. 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). Also of use is Mansfield Howard, “The Razor King,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology 7, no. 4 (Spring 1992): 4046.

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

7. See, for example, Lears T. J. Jackson, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic, 1994); Trachtenberg Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982); Horwitz Howard, By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Banta Martha, Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen and Ford (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Livingston James, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). 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) and Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).

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

9. Spang, Look Sharp! 12.

10. Roemer, introduction to The Human Drift, xivxv, original emphasis.

11. Horwitz Howard, “The Standard Oil Trust as Emersonian Hero,” Raritan 6, no. 4 (1987): 97119. 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! 13

13. Adams, King C. Gillette, 34.

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). 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). A provocative overview of the commercial implications of Emerson's philosophy can be found in Horwitz, By the Law of Nature, ch. 2, “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): 4563.

16. Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 421.

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

18. Adams, King C. Gillette, 8687.

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

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. 109–15. On the development of American advertising in general, see Pope Daniel, The Making of Modern Advertising (New York: Basic, 1983).

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

22. Lears, Fables of Abundance, esp. ch. 2, “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), 4954.

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) and Equality (1898) are important examples. Peck Bradford's The World a Department Store (1900) reduces such calculations of saved costs to a sort of popular slogan.

26. Adams, King C. Gillette, 5556.

27. Ibid, 56.

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

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

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) 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).

32. Adams, King C. Gillette, 56.

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).

35. Ibid., 47–49.

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

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

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