The History of Gillette’s Founder, a Utopian Socialist Turned Inventor

“A lot of the Gilded Age manufacturing types came up with different ideas on how to organize a city to benefit the common worker,” says Peter Liebhold, a curator of work and industry at the Smithsonian Institution, whose own enormous mustache rests formidably on his upper lip.

According to Liebhold, Gillette’s ascent occurred as the gorge between America’s wealthy and America’s everyone else grew throughout the 20th century. There was great public anxiety about the arrival of socialism in America and increased attention paid to the gap between a company’s CEO and its lowest-paid worker. “We’ve returned, in terms of inequality, to those times of Gillette,” says Liebhold. “There was a lot of tension then and there’s increasingly tension now.”

KCG abhorred competition in business. At one point in The Human Drift, he wondered if Satan invented capitalism as a way to bolster population numbers in hell. It is — and he pontificates at length here — evil. (What Gillette would make of his brand’s iron grip on the contemporary shaving industry is, again, information we cannot know, and it’s probably not worth thinking about anyway.) The most important thing to do, wrote Gillette, is dissolve all industry over the American populace, giving each citizen more or less the same stock options. Commerce would be comprised not of separate operations but vertically organized industries. One “company” for eggs, another for elevators, another for shoelaces.

The book eventually transitions from a quasi-socialist manifesto into a series of dreamily painted landscapes of an equitable American future: Gillette described his metropolis, sprawled from Niagara Falls to just outside of the Finger Lakes, with hyperspecific instruction, including porcelain-faced brick for his 25-story apartment complexes, circular buildings ridged like gears so each unit could receive equal sun exposure.

And yet, just shy of a decade after The Human Drift was published, Gillette filed a patent that would result in his namesake billion-dollar corporation. He continued to write dreamily about socialist utopia — and proposed a World Corporation (book three) headquartered in the Arizona Territory, with former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt at its helm — while he built the brand that bears his name. According to the company, KCG’s restless pursuit of shaving efficiency inspired its latest collection, which is luxuriously branded in handsome amber and navy. Liebhold credits the company with some of the first lifestyle branding in history, by associating the concept of shaving with virility and manhood. P&G did something similar with its virginally marketed Ivory soap, which launched a few decades prior to Gillette’s patent.

During an American Enterprise exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Liebhold handled a 1917 razor of Gillette’s design. The blades were sumptuously wrapped in emerald tissue, enclosed with a small photo of KCG. “And I understood, then, the importance of branding,” he says. “It wasn’t a knockoff. It was a Gillette.”

This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.

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